01 Dec 2013

Batteries and Chocolates

In male- and female-dominated organizations, things are just different
by Debora Spar


by Debora L. Spar

In 1991, when I joined the HBS faculty, men outnumbered women by two to one in the student body and four to one among the senior faculty. Back then, male students saw nothing wrong in circulating sign-up sheets during class for striptease parties; male faculty would occasionally and good-naturedly attribute female faculty members' teaching ratings to their physical features. It didn't really bother me, to be honest, and I settled quite happily into my own female niche. Then, in 2008, I left for Barnard College, moving from a workplace dominated by men to one run almost entirely by women.

As I've skidded from one end of the gendered-workplace spectrum to the other, I've become convinced that organizations dominated by women are different from those dominated by men, in ways that demand scrutiny. Because if organizations reveal the gender biases of those who control them, then historically male places will tend to be harder on women and to promote only those women who essentially behave "like men." Conversely, once an organization becomes dominated by women, the norms of the workplace are feminized to some extent, displaying characteristics (such as consensual decision-making and greater risk aversion) more associated with women's management styles.

Admittedly, acknowledging gender-based organizational distinctions risks endorsing stereotypes that feminism hasso successfully challenged. Yet looking back over the past 20 years of my life, I find it impossible not to believe that men and women tend to manage things differently. My evidence on this point is mostly anecdotal, but it hits me whenever I venture from a male-dominated organization to a female one. For example, men seem more comfortable than women both in expressing disagreement and in exerting authority over dissent. Other differences are more trivial. At Harvard, no one ever noticed my wardrobe; at Barnard, every outfit and handbag are under constant appraisal. At Harvard, a colleague once suggested that I end class by jumping out ofa cake. At Barnard, that just doesn't happen. At Barnard, I have two desk drawers reserved for gifts of chocolate and nice notes. At Harvard, I kept spare batteries there.

Over the years, there's a phrase that's been lobbed at me dozens of times: "I don't mean to disparage or anything," the speaker will say, "but we really need a woman…"

Indeed. Usually that means they don't actually need a woman at all, but think others will expect a woman to be there and are therefore under pressure to produce one. Usually it means there aren't enough women in the pool from which they're drawing, and that the few who exist will therefore be asked to do double or triple duty. Sometimes, being the woman means great things fall at your feet. More often, though, it means another Saturday afternoon or Thursday evening spent showing up to make someone else look better.

It doesn't have to be this way. Women can have kids and professional lives and enjoy healthy marriages and productive careers. Organizations can have employees who are devoted to their work and their families and who bring the diversity that any organization needs to thrive. "Fixing the women problem" is not about fixing the women, yanking them on committees, or placating them with yet another networking retreat. It's about fixing the organization—recognizing a diversity of skills and attributes, measuring them in a concrete way, and rewarding people accordingly.

Recently, I found myself requesting a favor of one of my colleagues. "Robert," I said, "I hate to ask you to take on another burden. But this task force is really important. I know you'll do a great job, and I really need a man."Those familiar words…but such a nice turn of phrase!

My Two Cents represents the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of HBS or Harvard University.

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