According to numerous meta-analyses of published research, men and women are actually very similar with respect to key attributes such as confidence, appetite for risk, and negotiating skill. Companies must instead address the organizational conditions that lead to lower rates of retention and promotion for women.
The conversation about the treatment of women in the workplace has reached a crescendo of late, and senior leaders—men as well as women—are increasingly vocal about a commitment to gender parity. The discussions, and many of the initiatives companies have undertaken, too often reflect a faulty belief: that men and women are fundamentally different, by virtue of their genes or their upbringing or both. Of course, there are biological differences. But those are not the differences people are usually talking about.
Instead, the rhetoric focuses on the idea that women are inherently unlike men in terms of disposition, attitudes, and behaviors. But whether framed as a barrier or a benefit, these beliefs hold women back. We will not level the playing field so long as the bedrock on which it rests is our conviction about how the sexes are different. The reason is simple: Science, by and large, does not actually support these claims.
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There is wide variation among women and among men, and meta-analyses show that, on average, the sexes are far more similar in their inclinations, attitudes, and skills than popular opinion would have us believe. We do see sex differences in various settings, including the workplace—but those differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits.
Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them. When facing dissimilar circumstances, people respond differently—not because of their sex but because of their situations. Emphasizing sex differences runs the risk of making them seem natural and inevitable.
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As anecdotes that align with stereotypes are told and retold, without addressing why and when stereotypical behaviors appear, sex differences are exaggerated and take on a determinative quality. Take, for example, the common belief that women are more committed to family than men are. Research simply does not support that notion. Other research, too, makes it clear that men and women do not have fundamentally different priorities.
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Numerous studies show that what does differ is the treatment mothers and fathers receive when they start a family. If men do ask, say, for a lighter travel schedule, their supervisors may cut them some slack—but often grudgingly and with the clear expectation that the reprieve is temporary. Accordingly, some men attempt an under-the-radar approach, quietly reducing hours or travel and hoping it goes unnoticed, while others simply concede, limiting the time they spend on family responsibilities and doubling down at work.
Either way, they maintain a reputation that keeps them on an upward trajectory. Meanwhile, mothers are often expected, indeed encouraged, to ratchet back at work. It is what they experience at work once they become parents that puts them in very different places. When companies observe differences in the overall success rates of women and men, or in behaviors that are critical to effectiveness, they can actively seek to understand the organizational conditions that might be responsible, and then they can experiment with changing those conditions.
Consider the example of a savvy managing director concerned about the leaky pipeline at her professional services firm. Getting less than top marks not only hurt their chances of promotion but also sent a demoralizing message that being a mother was incompatible with being on a partner track. However, the fix was relatively easy: The company decided to reserve the forced distribution for employees who worked the full year, while those with long leaves could roll over their rating from the prior year.
That applied to both men and women, but the policy was most heavily used by new mothers. The change gave women more incentive to return from maternity leave and helped keep them on track for advancement. As this example reveals, companies need to dive deeper into their beliefs, norms, practices, and policies to understand how they position women relative to men and how the different positions fuel inequality. Seriously investigating the context that gives rise to differential patterns in the way men and women experience the workplace—and intervening accordingly—can help companies chart a path to gender parity.
Drawing on years of social science research, we debunk the myths and offer alternative explanations for observed sex differences—explanations that point to ways that managers can level the playing field. We then offer a four-pronged strategy for undertaking such actions. And, the thinking goes, those shortcomings explain why women have so far failed to reach parity with men.
For decades, studies have examined sex differences on these three dimensions, enabling social scientists to conduct meta-analyses—investigations that reveal whether or not, on average across studies, sex differences hold, and if so, how large the differences are. Just as importantly, meta-analyses also reveal the circumstances under which differences between men and women are more or less likely to arise.
The aggregated findings are clear: Context explains any sex differences that exist in the workplace. A meta-analysis is a statistical technique used to combine the results of many studies, providing a more reliable basis for drawing conclusions from research. This approach has three advantages over a single study. First, it is more accurate, because it is based on a very large sample—the total of the samples across all the studies—and because it contains data collected in many different contexts.
Second, a meta-analysis is more comprehensive. Because it contains studies conducted in many different contexts, it can tell us in which kinds of contexts we are more or less likely to see sex differences. Third, a meta-analysis is more precise: It can tell us just how different men and women are. We can see from the curves that men, on average, are quite a bit taller than women. In fact, men average five feet, nine inches, and women five feet, three inches—a six-inch difference.
We can also see that a number of women are taller than the average man, just as a number of men are shorter than the average woman. The size of the sex effect on height is 1. Using that sex difference as a reference point, we can see from the graph on the right that the difference between men and women in self-esteem, or confidence, is much smaller, with an effect size of 0. In short, contrary to popular belief, all three sex differences we consider in this article are, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.
Take negotiation. Jens Mazei and colleagues recently analyzed more than studies examining whether men and women negotiate different outcomes; they determined that gender differences were small to negligible. Men have a slight advantage in negotiations when they are advocating exclusively for themselves and when ambiguity about the stakes or opportunities is high. Larger disparities in outcomes occur when negotiators either have no prior experience or are forced to negotiate, as in a mandated training exercise. But such situations are atypical, and even when they do arise, statisticians would deem the resulting sex differences to be small.
As for the notion that women are more cooperative than men, research by Daniel Balliet and colleagues refutes that. The belief that women lack confidence is another fallacy. But research does not corroborate the idea that women are less confident than men. Analyzing more than studies, Kristen Kling and colleagues concluded that the only noticeable differences occurred during adolescence; starting at age 23, differences become negligible.
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What about risk taking—are women really more conservative than men? On the positive side, the thinking goes, women are less likely to get caught up in macho displays of bluff and bravado and thus are less likely to take unnecessary risks. But once again, research fails to support either of these stereotypes. As with negotiation, sex differences in the propensity to take risks are small and depend on the context. In a meta-analysis performed by James Byrnes and colleagues, the largest differences arise in contexts unlikely to exist in most organizations such as among people asked to participate in a game of pure chance.
Similarly, in a study Peggy Dwyer and colleagues ran examining the largest, last, and riskiest investments made by nearly 2, mutual fund investors, sex differences were very small. In short, a wealth of evidence contradicts each of these popular myths.
Beliefs in sex differences have staying power partly because they uphold conventional gender norms, preserve the gender status quo, and require no upheaval of existing organizational practices or work arrangements. But they are also the path of least resistance for our brains. Three well-documented cognitive errors help explain the endurance of the sex-difference narrative.
In short, when we see men and women behaving in gender-stereotypical ways, we tend to make the most cognitively simple assumption—that the behavior reflects who they are rather than the situation they are in. Third, once people believe something is true, they tend to seek, notice, and remember evidence that confirms the position and to ignore or forget evidence that would challenge it. The extent to which employees are able to thrive and succeed at work depends partly on the kinds of opportunities and treatment they receive. People are more likely to behave in ways that undermine their chances for success when they are disconnected from information networks, when they are judged or penalized disproportionately harshly for mistakes or failures, and when they lack feedback.
Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to encounter each of these situations. Multiple studies show, for example, that women are less embedded in networks that offer opportunities to gather vital information and garner support. When people lack access to useful contacts and information, they face a disadvantage in negotiations.
They may not know what is on the table, what is within the realm of possibility, or even that a chance to strike a deal exists.
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In this example and others that follow, we have changed the names and some details to maintain confidentiality. Mary and Rick were both midlevel advisers in the wealth management division of a financial services firm. Rick was able to bring in more assets to manage because he sat on the board of a nonprofit, giving him access to a pool of potential clients with high net worth. What Mary did not know for many years is how Rick had gained that advantage. So he arranged for the firm to make a donation to the nonprofit.
Meanwhile, the lowest odds of marital happiness—about 13 percentage points lower than the one-partner women—belong to women who have had six to 10 sexual partners in their lives. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an Atlantic contributor. In an earlier analysis, Wolfinger found that women with zero or one previous sex partners before marriage were also least likely to divorce, while those with 10 or more were most likely.
These divorce-proof brides are an exclusive crew: By the s, he writes, just 5 percent of new brides were virgins. And just 6 percent of their marriages dissolved within five years, compared with 20 percent for most people.
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In his analysis, he controlled for education, income, and age at marriage. Even people who have slept with the entire Polyphonic Spree could go on to live in blissful matrimony. Still, researchers I spoke with speculated about a few reasons that sexually inexperienced marriages seem so solid. But it could be something more subtle: People who avoid sex before marriage might simply value marriage more highly, so they feel more satisfied by it. Contrary to what pop culture might have you believe, Americans are overall a pretty chaste people. The median American woman born in the s, Wolfinger writes, has had only three sexual partners in her lifetime, and the median man six.
So if you have even less sexual experience than that, your significant other might be your dream man simply by virtue of being your spouse. Read: Millennials want to marry later.