30 July 2007

Gender in the brain

There are fewer women physicists or architects or neurosurgeons in the world than their male counterparts. And, women chess grandmasters or video-game fanatics are hard to come by. Why is it so? Well, according to research, one reason is that male and female brains differ genetically.

According to a Discover Magazine article (‘He Thinks, She Thinks’) I had referred in my previous post, the human brain functions differently for men and women. For instance, while men have greater ability in focusing intently on work and tuning out distractions (ideal for winning at chess), women are more capable than men in handling languages and at verbal and memory tasks.

Although this may explain aptitudes in specific professions that men and women excel in, genetic coding in the brain is not the only reason for gender bias or stereotypes. According to psychologists and social scientists, environmental – i.e. societal and cultural – coding is as important as our genetic make-up. In fact, our culture actually sensitises us to certain belief systems which reappear at the workplace.

Consider, for instance, belief systems which we have all grown up with: ‘a woman’s place is at home’ or ‘men are better at maths and science than women’. Or, take the matter which was commented upon in one of my earlier posts: women losing out in job negotiations due to their non-aggressive nature. These belief systems actually affect our behaviour and performance even in benign situations.

Here’s a case in point as discussed in an article, ‘Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills’ from www.psychologymatters.org:

“In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What's more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.

Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility -- Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.”

The moral of the story is, wherever these belief systems exist, and are predominant, we tend to, automatically, go on the defensive. Particularly, in situations in which we are being evaluated: job interviews, appraisals, school and college exams, or the sports field. Sometimes, we are so sensitised by these belief systems that, although untrue, we prefer to conform to these systems than to challenge them. It is as if our brains are hardwired to perform in a predicated manner.

27 July 2007

Gender differences

“Like many-handed Hindu goddesses, women are better jugglers (in my experience), sweeping through their lives performing several tasks at once, while men seemingly do things sequentially—a division of labor that certainly prevails in our household.”
– Linda Marsa, in her article, ‘He Thinks, She Thinks’, Discover Magazine, July 2007

Genders differ – not just physiologically, but mentally and emotionally as well. This, as you can guess, is not a profound statement by me; but, rather, a reflection of all the scientific research that is available and my experiences in life. While reading up on gender differences in the workplace, earlier this month, I came across an article on the Internet from Discover Magazine which deals with the issue of gender differences from a scientific perspective.

The article, ‘He Thinks, She Thinks’ by Linda Marsa says, for instance, “men process their strong emotions differently from women and tend to act out and take action…” Ms Marsa, then, goes on to examine why this is so. Apparently, “findings offer tantalizing hints that even gender behavior differences once attributed solely to nurture—women are more emotionally attuned, while men are more physically aggressive—stem in part from variations in our neural circuitry.”

I quote from the article:

“The brain is divided into two hemispheres that play different roles in perception and behavior. The right side is relatively more involved with visual and spatial control, while the left is the seat of language. There is evidence that the male brain uses either one hemisphere or the other and relies on specialized brain regions when performing a task. Women, meanwhile, call on both hemispheres regardless of the task, resulting in greater communication between the two; they also enlist more brain regions to process information. When at rest, male minds appear to be more attuned to the “external world,” while there may be a “differential tilt toward the internal world” in female brains, says Larry Cahill, a neurobiologist at the University of California at Irvine.”

Got all that? Why not read the entire article online on Discover Magazine?

25 July 2007

Threat of the gender stereotype

Some of my working women friends have told me that their experience in business and the corporate world has not been only about performing in a competitive environment. They believed that there certainly is discrimination in the workplace, leading to differential treatment of men and women with equal (or similar) abilities.

They also believed that there are gender differences in preferences for job roles, leading to selection of specific jobs, and even occupations, for women. They have gone as far as to tell me that women, possessing abilities equal to men, have different expectations from the job and their ability to perform in the job (compared to men).

Did this mean women have lower expectations from their jobs and their careers? If so, did this mean women are, perhaps unconsciously, creating an image for themselves of being less able than their male counterparts? And, if this is true, did this mean that, once again perhaps unconsciously, women are creating a stereotype for themselves in business and the corporate world?

If the answer to these questions is a resounding ‘yes’, then it is likely that this gender stereotype will create its own pressure on women and, in turn, interfere with their performance at work. What’s worse, this threat of the gender stereotype is likely to give men an advantage over women… thereby, increasing the gender differences at the workplace.

23 July 2007

Women lack aggression

Although, in India, we have had a woman Prime Minister and now have a woman President, high-ranking positions in the political, academic, business and corporate worlds have usually been held by men. If you feel India is a little old-fashioned in distributing career opportunities to women non-equally, you’re probably right. But then, the rest of the world isn’t that far ahead of us. All across the world, gender differences prevail in all sorts of job roles and positions, not just in the high-ranking ones.

Why is this so? Well, discrimination against women is one reason that comes to mind. Then, as it so happens in the wide world, there are preferences for human capital of a specific gender for certain job roles. Perhaps this, too, is discrimination as there is a bias in favour of men… resulting in the proverbial gender gap in earnings (mentioned in my earlier posts). Connected to this thought is another: that women may be less competitive than men. Or, women may be less effective than men in competitive environments.

Could this be true? My experience tells me it is. That women, at least in India, are less competitive than men. Unlike men, women lack aggression, which is an important component of performance in a competitive environment. By ‘aggression’, I don’t mean hostile behaviour; but, rather, a propensity to perform at an enhanced level in order to win in a mixed-gender competitive environment. The ‘mixed-gender competitive environment’ is critical here as, I’ve found, women to be aggressively competitive in the company of other women.

If this is true, then it is indeed an interesting phenomenon. The fact that women can be aggressive per se, but not so when competing against men, is really an eye-opener. Because, then, the adage ‘women lack aggression’ is really a matter of belief, and has nothing whatsoever to do with their ability or skill or talent. It means women choose to use non-aggression as a behavioral strategy in a mixed-gender competitive environment, forfeiting their credentials, their job opportunities and their careers. And, in turn, limiting their chances of success (against men).

The question is, could this be classified as a gender stereotype?

20 July 2007

Unmasking manly men

Last year, Robin Ely of Harvard Business School and Debra Meyerson of Stanford University co-authored a working paper, ‘Unmasking Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Male Identity’. The paper, according to a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge published interview, ‘not only explores how organizations influence the way men enact their gender, but also looks at how “organizational features might encourage people to resist enacting those stereotypes” (quote from Robin Ely).’

Here’s an excerpt from an interview of Professor Robin Ely by Sarah Jane Gilbert, discussing the research behind and the point of view of ‘Unmasking Manly Men’:

Sarah Jane Gilbert: How do you define masculine identity and what led you to study this topic?

Robin Ely: We define masculine identity as the sense a man makes of himself as a man, which develops in the course of his interactions with others. A man encounters—and learns to anticipate—others' expectations of him as a man; he responds, others react, and through this back-and-forth, he comes to see and present himself in particular ways. Such interactions do not occur ex nihilo, but are shaped by culturally available ideologies about what it means to be a man. Hence, men's masculine identity (like women's feminine identity) is a profoundly social and cultural phenomenon.

As organizational scholars, we were interested in organizations as social and cultural contexts that shape how men make sense of themselves as men—the stories they tell themselves about what it means to be male—and in the effect this sense-making has on how they behave at work. Much research on gender in organizations documents how men and women differ on a variety of dimensions, from leadership style to negotiation skills to work values, but neglects the organizational features that underlie such differences.

This body of research runs the risk of reifying differences, of making them seem natural. If study after study reports findings that align with stereotypes and does not address why, then these differences—in temperament, values, attitudes, and behaviors—take on a determinative quality. In a culture that readily promotes gender essentialism—the belief that sex differences are natural—stereotypes provide a default attribution for women's lack of progress in the public sphere of work, making it difficult to expose and undermine the social and cultural bases of inequality.

We were interested in generating theory about the contribution of organizations to the etiology of sex differences in behavior, cognition, and emotion at work. Specifically, we wanted to understand how organizational features, such as work practices and norms, encourage people to think, feel, and behave in a manner that is consistent with traditional sex-role stereotypes, but also how organizational features might encourage people to resist enacting those stereotypes.

From this perspective, both masculine and feminine gender identity are interesting to study, but to study men and masculinity was especially intriguing because so often the world presumes that only women have a gender. By studying men and masculinity, we were able to highlight that men too have a gender and to examine how organizations influence the way men enact their gender.

For those of you interested in unmasking manly men, read the full interview here.

[Citation: ‘Manly Men, Oil Platforms, and Breaking Stereotypes’, Sarah Jane Gilbert, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 27 November 2006]

18 July 2007

A man's world

The other day, while a lady friend of mine was driving me around Bangalore, a car driven by a man suddenly cut in and almost pushed us off the road. Naturally, we were angry; but, being civilised folks, we let it pass. However, the incident remained on our minds for a while.

My friend explained to me that, as a woman driver, she has often experienced the ignominy of being cut in and squeezed into corners by male drivers. She said that men did that for two reasons: (a) it gave them some perverse pleasure, and (b) Indian men believed that driving a vehicle is a masculine task and not meant for women.

It was her second reason which had me wondering about the gender roles that are acted out around us, especially with reference to the jobs we hold. What she said was true – that there are some jobs meant only for men, and women are excluded from them. Though, in India, driving as solely a man’s job seems to have a cultural connotation to it, rather than a universal stereotyping.

Traditionally, hunting and soldiering were considered jobs for men alone. So were carpentry, blacksmithing and brick-laying or construction work. However, cultural nuances were always found, such as women labourers working at construction sites in India. Over the years, as newer job roles were defined, women were excluded from many of them. For instance, working on an oil rig is still considered to be solely in the male domain.

Nonetheless, when it came to white-collar work or executive job roles in the corporate world, more and more women were welcomed into the industry, with some women taking up important roles and positions once dominated by men. Or, so I thought. That’s why I was surprised to read an online article in last week’s issue of The Economist which reviewed two new books on corporate strategy… which is, well, at the cutting-edge of the corporate world.

The Economist article on books on corporate strategy, titled ‘Be firm, be flexible’, reviewed Michael E Raynor’s ‘The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (and What to Do About It)’ and Chris Zook’s ‘Unstoppable: Finding Hidden Assets to Renew the Core and Fuel Profitable Growth’. Among other things, the article hinted that designing and developing corporate strategies is still considered a man’s job… though this view was likely to change.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The two books serve to emphasise the extent to which corporate strategy is man’s territory. Like golf, religion and the working breakfast, it seems set on excluding women from decision-making. Mr Zook’s bibliography lists 55 books written by men and one by a woman. Mr Raynor’s reference index contains the names of 80 men and not a single woman. Strategy today still assumes that corporate decision-makers are like generals on a battlefield, fighting in a sequential world where one step is “then” followed by another along a route clearly marked “either/or”. In reality, though, strategy is now a world more familiar to working mothers, where the inhabitants juggle many issues at once and rarely face clear-cut either/or situations.”

[Citation: ‘Be firm, be flexible’, Books & Arts, The Economist, 12 July 2007]

17 July 2007

Career tips for women executives

As a corollary to yesterday’s post, I thought I’ll add a helping hand to anyone who may benefit from an article I read online on WSJ.com Career Journal while reading up stuff on the Internet before posting on my blog.

The article, ‘Four Negotiation Tips For Women Executives’, by Lee E Miller and Jessica Miller, goes back a couple of years – and is, perhaps, a little Western going by Indian sentiments – but it is worth a read by both women and male executives who wish to give their careers a fillip.

You can find the WSJ.com Career Journal article here.

16 July 2007

Men make more money than women

Some of my women executive friends complain that they don’t get paid as well as their male counterparts do. They say that women aren’t good negotiators of (their own) compensation packages during job interviews because they lack the aggression men have. In the process, they compromise on their earnings while putting in the same effort at work.

This thought is perhaps true as (besides also being suggested by a fellow blogger in a recent comment on my blog) it seems to resonate faithfully in the largest of the ‘equal employment opportunity’ markets in the world: the United States of America.

Almost a year ago, an article in CNNMoney.com commented on this very fact. The article, by Jessica Seid, titled ‘10 Best-paid executives: They are all men’, presented a case of how, according to data collected from compensation surveys done in 2005 for Fortune magazine, the best-paid women executives in the US were paid almost a third of what the best-paid male executives received.

Here are some examples from that article:

In 2005, the top-earning woman executive was Safra Catz, president and CFO of Oracle. She took home $26.1 million in total compensation. Her CEO, Larry Ellison, took home $52.3 million (double of Catz’ pay).

The second-highest paid woman executive, Susan Decker, CFO of Yahoo!, made $24.3 million. Her chairman and CEO, Terry Semel, earned $56.8 million (more than double of Decker’s earnings).

Compared to the two best-paid women executives, Catz and Decker, the highest paid executive in the US in 2005 was Eugene Isenberg, CEO of Nabors Industries, taking home $71.4 million. The next was Ray Irani, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, who made $70 million.

Why is there such a striking difference in the compensations of top women and men executives? According to the CNNMoney.com article:

“All through the pipeline women leaders aren’t paid as well as men,” said Lois Joy, research director at Catalyst, a nonprofit that seeks to advance women in business. “And when you get to the CEO level, that same inequality is replicated.”

Indeed, the earnings of women in full-time management and professional jobs last year averaged 73 percent of men’s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That gap can be explained to a large extent by nondiscriminatory factors, some studies have found, and are based on a division of labor in the home that relies more heavily on women than on men, according to Catalyst.

Women are not only less likely to work continuously during their lives, but responsibilities at home also influence their choice of job and type of employer, Catalyst said.

However, top-ranking woman executive Safra Catz’ pay was almost a third of top-ranking male executive Eugene Isenberg’s… a figure far less than the 73 percent difference the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. Did this mean the difference in compensation packages between women and men increases as the executives move up the corporate ladder?

The CNNMoney.com article suggested one reason (among a few) for this:

At lower levels, a lot of the disparity between executive men and women’s paychecks can be explained by the fact that women managed smaller companies and were less likely to be CEO, chair or company president, said Kevin Murphy, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business citing a paper by Marianne Bertrand & Kevin Hallock.

In fact, eight out of 10 of the highest-paid executives overall are CEOs, while only five of the 10 best-compensated women are chief executives.

It doesn’t sound like a very convincing premise to me, but there you have it. Whether you agree with it or not, reading the CNNMoney.com article might give you a better understanding – at least, an US perspective – of the differences in compensations between the two genders.

You can find the CNNMoney.com Jessica Seid article here.

10 July 2007


Coincidentally, and somewhat in line with my previous post on the different realities men and women experienced in their careers, the Sunday Times of India, in their Times Life! supplement last Sunday, released a story on successful working women in India and their perspectives on their work lives. The story, ‘Guilt-edged lives’, showcased several successful Indian businesswomen voicing, unanimously, the fact that a career means a balance between work, family and home.

The Times Life! story, which strangely does not credit its author(s) but acknowledges the Times News Network, quotes Sulajja Firodia Motwani, MD of Kinetic Engineering: “Being a working woman is a constant struggle, especially when it comes to kids. Even if you try and balance your work with your family and kids, there’s still an emotional pull.” The story centres on the fact that these successful businesswomen experience a feeling of guilt in having to manage work and family/home simultaneously, and are bold enough to acknowledge it publicly.

However, the story does not clearly state if the feeling of guilt is directed towards their work or their family/home, or both. Meaning, if they feel guilty for not being able to devote themselves 100 percent – and do justice – either to their work or to their family/home, or both. Judging the tone of the story, I’d say the guilt is directed towards their family/home. Which could mean that (and forgive me for generalising here) the woman is less guilty about not being able to devote 100 percent to her work/career.

To be fair, the story does go on to say (and I quote here from the story):

“At times the woman is torn between her professional aspirations and her familial roles. The solution seldom lies in choosing one over the other because for a woman it is important that she achieve success on both the home and work fronts, and not one at the expense of the other. Easily said, but takes some doing.”

Although all the women interviewed in the story mentioned their guilt, concern for and devotion to their children, interestingly, not a single woman mentioned her guilt, concern for and her devotion to her husband – leave alone her parents or her parents-in-law, which is normally how an Indian family is structured. I wonder if this is what the new and emerging Indian woman is all about. Perhaps, there’s a story in this as well.

And, what about the different realities (that men and women experienced in their careers) which I had talked about in my previous post? Well, the Times Life! story does touch upon that. It concludes with a quote from television host and VJ Mini Mathur: “A man simply cannot multitask the way we women can. If he’s making a film, he is only concentrating on that task, while I am expected to juggle several roles at once, and come up ace in each.”

[Citation: ‘Guilt-edged lives’, Times Life!, Sunday Times of India, Sunday, July 8, 2007]

05 July 2007

Different realities

I often wonder if men and women experience careers in the same way. Do women executives go through the same exhilaration and/or despair as their male counterparts do? Or, do they experience and view their careers in a completely different way? To find out answers to these questions, I asked several women executive friends of mine about their work and their careers in the corporate world.

Though the sample size is small, my findings are quite interesting.

Women seem to have the same career aspirations as men do. However, somewhere along the line, while getting married and setting up a family, most of my women executive friends have had to drop out of their corporate careers. What they said was, had the marriage and family option not come their way, they would be as competitive as their male colleagues in building a career and moving up the corporate ladder.

For those who remained in the race, or for those who opted out during motherhood and rejoined later, sometimes in a consulting role rather than a full-time job, career aspirations were not reduced. What was reduced, however, was their ambition for taking up greater responsibilities and higher pressures at work which normally commensurate with higher designations.

In short, none of my women friends actually wanted to work harder (and smarter) to become CEOs of their companies, unlike their husbands or my other male corporate executive friends. The women simply said that their determination to chase a career to the top didn’t matter anymore once the children were born. That, their realities changed after marriage and motherhood. That, they had decided to make trade-offs and adopt different career strategies to balance work-life responsibilities.

When I quizzed my women executive friends on what strategies they had adopted in advancing their careers, they stated the same things as I and my male corporate executives often do: exceeding performance targets, demonstrating expertise, taking up high-visibility assignments, displaying excellence in communication and in people management.

As barriers to advancement, they stated lack of line experience, work/management styles which were different from organisational norms, differences (in thinking) with their bosses, and lack of understanding of organisational politics. Once again, these characteristics of corporate careers were similar to what their male colleagues experienced. However, this is where the similarities ended.

Women corporate executives experienced a host of challenges their male counterparts did not. Most of these were gender-based characteristics, and topping it all was an inhospitable corporate culture – a culture that generally favoured men. Next was gender stereotyping – women not being suitable for certain jobs, women not being as committed to work as men, women requiring handling with kid gloves, women being moody and emotional, women crying, etc. Next on the list was lower pay for women. Then, women not being included in (informal) male networks which left the women clueless about organisational decisions/behaviour in many situations.

It ended with women corporate executives lacking appropriate role models.

02 July 2007

Are women employees better than men?

During a job interview, I was asked whether women employees were better than men. Honestly, I was caught off-guard. I took it as a trick question since my interviewers were both women. I answered that it was difficult to tell. That it depended on the job description and the responsibilities that came with the job. My interviewers weren’t satisfied with this and insisted on an answer: Were women employees better or worse than their male colleagues?

Put to the test, I was clearly uncomfortable, but suggested that I could, perhaps, state in what respects I considered women employees to be better than men. My interviewers accepted this proposition as a suitable alternative to their question and so I rattled off (a) women don’t bring their egos into their work like men do and pick fights with each other; (b) women are more compassionate than men in dealing with conflict; and (c) women can handle failure more maturely than men.

At that time I had no idea if my answer had hit the mark. But later, upon learning that I had been selected for the job, I met up with my interviewers and quizzed them. I just had to know whether my answer to that question had fit the response expected. Unfortunately, till this day, I’m still in the dark as to whether my answer was the right one. All I was told was that my answer was ‘sensible’ and that, though uncomfortable, I did not seem to be provoked by the question. That, temperament-wise, I was okay.

Although this news was heartening, the situation had me thinking: If we, men, aren’t comfortable answering questions about our women colleagues, how comfortable can we be in dealing with, or managing, them on a day-to-day basis? Or, as managers, in appraising them or mentoring them when the time comes? What’s more, I wondered, would women managers be as sensitive to women employees as male managers are expected to be?

That’s not all. Many more questions dogged my mind: Are women employees different from their male colleagues (in spite of my off-the-cuff answer at the interview)? Do women employees really bring anything special to the job which their male colleagues can’t, or don’t? Do women employees need different ways of managing or mentoring? And, of course, are women employees better than men?