In executive coaching (both women and men) I’ve often observed that two parallel stories about women and men in the workplace often coexist. First, “women and men communicate differently” is a truth that few bother to deny. Second, “men and women are treated equally in the workplace.” To me, it’s difficult for these two perspectives to both be true and yet many people, especially leaders, seem to believe them without any cognitive dissonance, unaware of the ways unconscious bias works on us all.
Do women and men communicate differently?
Research seems to bear out the truth of this statement and it’s pretty easy to verify this anecdotally. Sitting in a meeting with men and women communicating you’ll experience a common language and plenty of shared meaning. But if you look through a gender lens, you’ll see behavior and communications patterns that differ. Men will often be more willing to interrupt each other and women as well. Women will be four times more likely to begin their comments with a self-deprecating phrase like “I may not be the expert on this, but….”
What’s most interesting to me about these dynamics is that if you could call a “time out” in the average meeting and collect the men on one side of the room and the women on the other, it wouldn’t take too long to get each group talking about the annoying communication patterns of dealing with the other group. When prompted, women will quickly start complaining about how often the men give voice to an idea a woman brought up only a few minutes earlier without giving credit to the woman. Men, similarly prompted, will easily roll their eyes at how long it can take a woman to get to the point, stop asking questions and make a decision. There are other patterns people will identify if you give them the chance, including men don’t listen or women are too emotional.
Even though research has found that people’s perception of communications patterns such as these consistently break down by gender lines, in my own experience there are other dynamics at play.
How gender communications stereotypes reveal unconscious biases
I have worked with many women and women’s groups on personal and interpersonal strategies for communicating with confidence, and one of the most engaging conversations that consistently crops up is around the appropriate role of emotion in the workplace. Women are often shocked to learn that emotions, emotional awareness and emotional expression are extremely important leadership skills. The reason they are surprised is because they believe a story about emotions that is very limiting, which is that “emotions at work” looks like someone (usually a woman) breaking down and crying uncontrollably and in a way that incapacitates her to do her job. Many men believe this story too, and they live in fear of anyone (woman or man) becoming visibly upset in a business meeting. And yet, everyone has been acculturated to believing that anger — a potent emotion in any context — can be an appropriate emotion to express in a business setting.
“Learn to make the unconscious, conscious.” Click to Tweet
These perceptions reveal an important factor running beneath the stories most of us believe about gendered communications patterns in the workplace, and throughout life in general. In my experience the importance of differences between men and women (or any classification population) has less to do with the “truth” of them and more to do with what we believe about why we “do this to each other” and “what happens as a result.”
Those two time-out groups in the meeting above will quickly start psychoanalyzing the other gender if you give them the right prompts and they feel safe in their conversational bubbles. They’ll start trying to explain why women or men talk or act the way they do. They’ll repeat pop psychology and tell anecdotal stories about their family members and friends. Many will become defensive, and if you give it enough time, some victim-talk will start to emerge.
It is normal human behavior in like-minded groups, to seek confirmation for the way we experience “the other,” but for those who look at these beliefs and stories also reveal many unconscious biases that have embedded themselves into our cultures. To the extent they remain unchallenged in the group, they also reveal how these biases have embedded themselves into our individual psyches as well.
Bottom line: unconscious biases become reality unless we consciously change them
The tricky thing about unconscious biases is that until they become conscious, we cannot challenge our own, and our groups’, assumptions about what is true. We cannot begin an inquiry into what is true because it is a species-wide habit, reliable and predictable across circumstances and populations, and what is true because we have common perceptions that simply reinforce each other until it is, in fact, our reality. We cannot begin to experiment with our own behaviors and beliefs by challenging our assumptions to discover new ways of communicating and working together.
There is no one solution to this challenge, however, everyone’s journey to finding more effective communications styles personally and between genders, is the same: start looking for the assumptions (i.e., biases) that influence your thinking and communications, and which you’re not conscious of. That’s it. Learn to make the unconscious, conscious. Just be curious and ask yourself the questions to reveal your underlying assumptions. Challenge them more often and be open to changing the way you see things about yourself and others.
With respect to gendered communications, I have a short lesson to help you. Use this to get smarter about looking at all kinds of unconscious biases you have that drive your behaviors and relationships. They’re not all bad, but you’ll be a more effective leader and communicator if you’re more aware of them.
Download the free InPower Coaching transformational leadership guidelines to help you lead others for personal growth and business results!