Do women do more “helping” tasks (vs “working”) in your office? In their third in a four-part New York Times series on women at work, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant answer, “Yes.” “Helping” (also called “office housework”) means counseling more junior colleagues, planning events, staying late to help a co-worker, taking notes in meetings, and getting coffee for others. The punchline of the article is “women help more but benefit less from it.”
The research cited shows that women are expected to be helpful so get little credit in performance evaluations when they are. Worse, they are penalized in performance reviews when they decline to “help.” Men are expected to put results ahead of communal needs. So, when men do “help,” they are rewarded.
Not only do women face this no-win proposition; helping costs them energy and, most important, costs them opportunities. The authors quote Joan Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work whose own Washington Post article addresses women and “office housework.” Says Williams, “The person taking diligent notes in a meeting almost never makes the killer point.”
Grant and Sandberg’s solution is to “first acknowledge it.” Yes, awareness is always the starting point for making change. They suggest that (if they are aware and acknowledge it) “men can help solve this problem by speaking up.” This is the same solution they suggest to solve the problem addressed in the second piece in this series. That problem (which I covered in a blog post) is men’s habit of “talking over” a woman, not hearing her ideas and judging her if she does speak up or speak “too much.”
Men don’t intentionally “talk over” women or ignore the value of the “help” they provide at work. They do it because they (like all of us) have unconscious ways of thinking — unconscious biases (or “mind-sets” as McKinsey calls them). The mind-sets underlying the issues highlighted by Sandberg and Grant reflect the cultural bias in favor of men and against women.
I hope Grant and Sandberg have brought awareness to a large audience. I hope that awareness (acknowledgment) of these issues enables men to see the issue and “speak up.” I hope this contributes to enabling women to reach their potential – and to the cause of gender diversity all the way up the organizational ladder.
Do you think the Sandberg-Grant series can increase men’s value of women at work?
I’ve been focused on the issue of differences in styles of managing conflict, differences on the masculine-feminine continuum. On the masculine side of this continuum is “Aggression” – direct confrontation of the issue. On the feminine side is “Avoidance,” avoiding a confrontation or confronting an issue indirectly. First, I wrote an article that you can find on The Huffington Post. Then I wrote a blog post on how I find little redeeming value in the feminine style of conflict. I believe there are deep roots to the differences in masculine and feminine style of conflict – in nature and nurture. In other words, changing how we individually tend to handle conflict takes conscious effort.
As always, because both men and women behave in both masculine and feminine ways, we let our prototype Max represent the masculine side of the masculine-feminine continuum and the prototype Fran represent the feminine side. Within the feminine worldview, Fran sees herself in a network where relationships matter more than status or winning. It is logical, then, that she would avoid conflict and handle issues in an indirect way in order to preserve relationships. In the masculine worldview, Max sees himself in a hierarchy where status and winning trump connections. His direct approach to conflict is designed to accomplish goals, build his status and help him “win.”
Max has more testosterone than Fran. Under stress, Max secretes testosterone, which drives aggression and the “fight or flight” response. This made for a good survival mechanism back when we shared the planet with wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. It still does when a burglar is at the door and the man of the house (who is generally larger and stronger than his female mate) takes on the role of protector. And it influences how the Max will respond when Sam cuts him off in a meeting. He is more likely to go right back at Sam or confront him directly.
Under stress (from a tiger, a burglar or Sam), Fran has a large repertoire. According to a UCLA study women may secrete oxytocin, a bonding hormone that “buffers” the fight or flight response.” This (a) drives her to protect her offspring and (b) triggers the “tend and befriend” response – reaching out to other women. Connecting with others provides strength in numbers, compensating for the female’s smaller size and lesser strength. When Sam cuts her off in a meeting, Fran will not risk her relationship by confronting him – but she may go to her friends to vent or seek solace.
There are cultural contributors to the masculine-feminine differences in handling conflict, including how little ones play. Little boys’ games involve conflict, aggression and winners and losers. Girls tend to play games with little conflict in which relationships matter more than winning (or the rules). Little boys, at least until fairly recently, have been taught not to cry or express vulnerability. Anger is accepted more from boys than girls. When a “difference” arises, little Max wants to win; little Fran prefers a win-win solution.
Max is more likely to quickly get over a conflict with a colleague; it isn’t personal to him, and handling it directly brings closure. Because of how she values relationships, it hard for Fran to confront a friend or colleague directly — even though indirect forms of conflict (suppressing her anger or telling others about it) may be more damaging in the end. Conflict often involves emotions and is personal to Fran, and she may hold onto it for a very long time!
There are strengths and limitations of both styles. Max’s direct conflict can get issues on the table and bring closure. But it can be ugly and can damage relationships. Avoiding conflict is fine if the issue isn’t worth dealing with; but the issue can fester and lead to a distorted “blow up.” Fran’s indirect form of conflict can take the fairly benign form of “ostracizing” the person who has upset her. But it can take really damaging forms, for example, talking to others about the issue, rather than to the person involved.
It would be nice if we could just choose the style that is best in the circumstances. But that takes recognizing that nature and nurture may have conspired so that we are wired to do it a certain way. Overcoming our default may take some work!
The issue of conflict – or ways of handling conflict — has been on my mind. I wrote an article that appeared on The Huffington Post on the topic. I keep thinking about how I personally manage conflict and where that style is on the masculine-feminine continuum. Some people who read my recent article felt I was critical of the feminine way of handling conflict. I am.
If you draw a straight line to represent the continuum of conflict styles, on the far left is aggression; then at the one-quarter mark is direct conflict; at the three-quarter mark is indirect conflict; and on the far right is conflict avoidance. There are “hybrids” all along the line—like direct conflict that is somewhat aggressive or conflict that is a cross between direct and indirect (direct but gentle). On the left side are masculine styles of conflict (practiced by both men and women but more frequently by men); on the right are feminine styles (also practiced by both but mostly by women).
It is easy to see the downsides of aggressive conflict. Screaming, yelling and punching just do not work. In my article, I take aim at indirect conflict. Maybe it is because I see it in myself. Conflict has been particularly ineffective for me when it is with another woman. I have trouble speaking up when I am irritated or frustrated even with good girlfriends. And when I do speak up . . . it often doesn’t go well. Here are some examples:
- I felt frustrated with a friend, over and over, for being on her cell phone so much when we were together. I said nothing but felt hurt.
- A woman who was once a close friend expressed anger at me often. When I tried to tell her my side and how it felt for her to be so critical, she just defended. She refused to read a letter I had written. We haven’t spoken in five years.
- I felt frustrated that another friend was frequently late to our lunch or dinner dates. I tried to tell her that. She simply defended her action; I could feel tension in the air.
All of these are about conflict with another woman. All demonstrate ways of doing conflict on the feminine side of the continuum. Ugh! The problem is that, even when I have tried speaking up about what is bothering me (direct conflict), in these instances, I have not reached the kind of resolution that feels complete.
A male friend read a draft of my article. He told me to take out the part about taking conflict personally. I told him I couldn’t – because the typical woman (I am like this) simply does take conflict personally. This seems to be a true gender difference. For women, emotions are involved. It’s all about our brain structure, hormones and how little girls are raised. I wrote about this in an early blog. Telling a woman, “It’s not personal” does nothing to change her feelings.
I just find little redeeming value in the feminine (indirect) approach to conflict. And yet I have had little luck doing direct conflict with women. The conflict that provoked my article (I tell the story there) did reach healthy resolution; but it took real commitment – and several weeks. I think the lesson is that, when women have a dispute, both parties need to practice that “direct but gentle” hybrid form of conflict – and try to manage those inevitable emotions.
Have you seen women do conflict well?