Thursday, April 5, 2012

Men and Women

When I was a mid-level associate in a big law firm, almost all my immediate colleagues were male. In some ways, I really enjoyed working with men – their frank, no-BS approach; their easy-going attitude; the fact that they were pretty easy to read. However, several things used to frustrate me no end about the men’s world that was my workplace. Here are a few:

Procrastination. My male colleagues loved to fly by the seats of their tailor-made pants. No one ever seemed to want to get started on the newest piece of work on our plates. Diligent little me, driven by deadline anxiety, would proactively generate outlines, first drafts, and various other efforts aimed at pushing things forward. I might as well not have bothered, as no one was ever interested in looking at them until very late in the piece. We never got things done ahead of time, and many times we went right down to the wire, pressing “send” in a haze of adrenalin and exhaustion and takeaway pizza and coffee fumes. I would have liked our team to start on new assignments the moment they came in the door and I would have loved for us to have finished them with hours or days to spare. I got the feeling that my male colleagues preferred to wait until the adrenalin kicked in, and didn’t see the need to waste time starting early when they knew they could get it all done in a final mad rush.

Time-wasting. My male colleagues loved to sit around and “strategize” or “brainstorm”; an awful lot of talk about everything else under the sun crept into those meetings. Although many of those colleagues had wives and children at home, I felt like the only one in any hurry to get things done quickly and efficiently during the day so as to make a quick getaway at night. I would get so impatient sitting
in conference rooms or in other people’s offices, wondering how much longer I’d have to listen to three guys debating the pros and cons of the newest Apple product, but if I tried to turn the discussion back to the task at hand I’d be called a Goody Two Shoes, and the Apple debate would anyway be argued to completion before people turned their minds back to work. I understood the need for those moments that build camaraderie and good relationships among co-workers, but so often I felt that the timing was all wrong.

The [precious few] times I got to work on all-women teams I couldn’t believe the difference in efficiency and productivity. I felt that we were streets ahead of men in this respect. It seems to me that women prefer to slog away like Goody Two Shoes and then beat a hasty retreat once the work is finished, but men get bored with the task at hand and seek fun distractions at frequent intervals.

Teasing. Men seem to love to tease each other, relentlessly and mercilessly – poking fun at the chubby guy; mocking the guy who can’t find a girlfriend; humiliating the guy who can’t catch a football thrown the length of the corridor. Privately, I found it mean and cringe-making, but I knew better than to say anything. You knew you had been accepted by your male colleagues when they started teasing you with nicknames like Goody Two Shoes, or when they included you in a series of co-worker South Park characters they were creating (cheekily giving your tiny-boobed character a t-shirt saying “Hooters”).
Women seem to be on a different wavelength when it comes to office humour.*

* One time I did conspire with a [male] colleague to put a life-size cardboard cut-out of Darth Vader in our boss’ office. I did it to be cheeky, yes, but not to be mean. In fact, I was sure my boss would secretly love to be compared with Darth Vader. I wasn’t wrong.

On the home front, I have to admit that it’s more or less the same things that really get my goat – in particular, the difference in my husband’s and my sense of time, urgency, and detail. I have a deep-seated need to plan things far in advance in minute detail while hubby is keen to wing it (his solution, in a crisis situation, being to turn to me and ask anxiously, “do you have any snacks for the kids?” or “do you have a tasteful guest gift we can take to the friends whose hospitality we will be enjoying in less than 30 minutes from now?”)

Lately, the first world has been hung up on gender equality. More men putting in more time at home; more women making their way to the top of the corporate ladder.

I firmly believe that women are more than capable of doing what have traditionally been men’s jobs. I also firmly believe that men are capable of caring for children, doing housework, and cooking.

What I don’t believe, though, is that men and women are the same. On the contrary, we couldn’t be more different. It follows that men and women would take different routes towards accomplishing the same task, and that in order to work together, at home or at work, we need to allow each other to be and to work differently.

Have we really been trying to do that?

It seems to me that, thus far, in the corporate workplace we’ve taken what is an essentially male-focused model and tried to fit women into it, and in the home we’ve taken the role of wife and mother and encouraged men to take it on. Consciously or unconsciously, we want corporate women to behave like men in the workplace, and we want men to behave like women at home, and yet, if they do we feel confused and uncomfortable, because they are no longer behaving like the woman/man that they are.

This is just not going to work in the long run – not if women want to be organized and efficient at work and go home early to their families, while men still get to fly by the seat of their pants and enjoy the thrill of the pursuit and the ultimate catch; not if women want to live in an orderly household with clean laundry and outings unspoilt by foreseeable disasters, while men are still able to romp good-naturedly with their kids (preferably with sport on the tv in the background) and focus less on laundry and more on changing lightbulbs, washing the car, and fixing that broken tile in the bathroom.

Maybe this frustration about fitting in, and (perhaps worse) having to welcome someone who feels like an outsider into “your” space, is one of the biggest reasons we aren’t seeing equal representation of men and women in top positions in the workplace, or as managers on the home front.

We need to have different ideas of teamwork and equality. Equality doesn’t mean doing the same things in the same way. We have to let each other be different.

The question is, of course – how on earth are we going to do this?


  1. God only knows! But I enjoyed reading it anyway. :)

  2. Interesting blog-post there Katriina. But do you really think this is a gender thing? I have know seat-of-pants business women and Goody Two Shoes men...

    1. quite right, Olli. Drawing these kinds of massive generalizations is always risky, for that very reason. Judging from my own experience, though (I have worked in four big law firms so far, and have come to know several clients' workplaces as well) male-dominated workplaces tend to feel similar to other male-dominated workplaces and very different from female-dominated workplaces, even though individual people inside them might stand out as unique in those environments.

  3. Very interesting post! I think you're right that we tend to place pressure on the genders to adapt to their assigned roles in life. When women were relegated to the home sphere and men were expected to work, society prescribed that they fulfill those roles according to gender. Nowadays, I suppose it's shifted a bit.

    I do suspect, though, that what you're describing is part of a subculture. Correct me if I'm wrong (since you've experienced it and I haven't) but it seems like part of being a lawyer is often being initiated into an old boys club. My work experience differs. I have worked in a group made up entirely of women who were completely and utterly disorganized, and co-ed groups in which the men were conscientious and focused.

    I think that all jobs seem to come with their own standard culture. Sometimes it's strongly correlated with gender and gender relations, and sometimes gender is merely a footnote.

    As for within relationships, I lived with a man for three years who was totally fastidious and always well-prepared. I was usually the one asking, "Did you get a gift??" and his answer was invariably, "Of course!" My husband and I are roughly equal when it comes to being forgetful dolts, with one exception being my obsession with homework! ;)

    1. Elena, you make a very good point. Perhaps areas like law and finance are more likely to be "old boys' clubs" than other workplaces. I guess my point is that there should be more workplaces (and homes) where people not only acknowledge but also welcome each other's differences, and try to create an environment where these complementary differences become strengths for the team as a whole. You (and Olli) are quite right to point out that gender may, in fact, be just a footnote here.

  4. I'm not sure the planning/winging it difference goes along the gender lines.

    The office you worked for sounded like a bunch of narcissists only in it for the power/money/status/benefits. That simply wouldn't fly in an engineering profession.

    WRT the off-the-tangent discussions, did you try framing it as "can we not do the business part first so that I, a single person, can then go do other, single-person things and not waste my free time and you can then hang around all you want"?
    Then again, the last-minute crunch mentality clearly didn't work, because irrelevance happens when people are getting too tired.

    The gender equality is a solved problem once you've taught equality to the kids. Then it is simply a matter of time. Executives are typically some 40- to 60-year-olds and up, so think along the lines of 30-50 years plus some inertia (the oldies also instill some of their culture to the newbies or they get somewhat chosen based on that culture). Attempts to speed up the process may or may not work, but tend to leave a problematic, permanent patchwork of temporary solutions, which may provoke a backlash when they are (perhaps rightly) perceived as inducing inequality in the other direction.

    I'm not trying to stir up anything here, but I think the approach of comparing the number of top <anything> in men and women is wrong. Men tend to show more variance in everything, so it's not just the top but also the bottom that is men. It's the men who are in gutter. If you start pushing for equal numbers of men and women in top positions, you're creating an environment which probably largely favours majority of women over majority of men. I don't think that is equality. Frankly, I'd go for the systematic approach of getting people to their suitable places in society and then trying to dissolve the economic, social, status and equality differences.

    1. You raised an interesting point that I deliberately sidestepped in this post - that different people have different strengths, and each has his or her natural "niche" in society. I deleted the part of my draft where I wrote about this, because I couldn't seem to get it right - my text seemed too open to interpretations like "women are the real leaders in our society and should be the ones organizing and bullying men into getting things done" (which honestly wasn't my point, though I admit still managed to take a dig at the male of the species in this post! Sorry, guys.)

      The real mission of the gender equality movement should be to allow people find their natural niche, regardless of whether they are male or female. The fact is that some women excel at being stay-at-home-parents, and so do some men. Some women excel in management roles, and so do some men. The reverse is also true, i.e., that some women are not naturally good at parenting and some men are not natural managers.

      I couldn't agree more that equality is not achieved through equal numbers. I also think, though, that there are certain fields where it has been very hard for women to get a toehold, even though they appear to have strong potential in that particular field (for example, law, finance, politics), and despite a widespread feeling that equality would be a good thing. I can understand why quotas have been introduced in some of these fields, in an effort to get the ball rolling somehow, but I agree that it is unlikely to have the desired effect in the long-term. I don't know what the answer is to achieving true equality in these fields. I wish I did.

    2. The true equality argument might not even be applicable. What if there isn't real interest or suitability* for the field to a degree that would provide percentages significant enough to be interpreted as equality? There might not be any tools to verify a lack of bias. (I'm not familiar with HC social sciences.) There are currently fields that are female-dominated. It's actually curious how the society is not publicly concerned about that.
      Quotas are again a numbers game. The real solution would be attitude adjustment and removal of barriers of entry to allow free and non-prejudiced choice for all instead of artificially jacking up the numbers. That's all social and cultural change then, which sounds like kids again, I'm afraid.

      *) Yes, I know how this sounds.

  5. Men do not read the instruction manual. We just hate paperwork. Hate the detail. We imagine we can do it all intuitively. Failing isn't a problem. Succeeding in these methods is... because it totally justifies the ongoing behaviour!

    1. Steve, I would never have dared to say that myself, but can I say that I don't disagree? :) "Failing isn't a problem" is actually one trait I often see in men and that I would like to learn myself. I dread failure and my incessant contingency planning is all about trying to avoid failure, or (at least) feeling as though I've failed...

    2. No, we don't. But it's a geeky/enthusiast trait.

  6. Very interesting post, but I haven't really had too many job experiences so I can't share anything about that. I mean, back in Indo I was a private English tutor and then a full-time translator (working from home).

    Here in Finland I've been in different training places and now in my workplace it's dominated by women, so I don't know how it's like to work in a place dominated by men.

    At home I'm more of a planner 'coz basically I'm a melancholic/phlegmatic, whereas hubby has more phlegmatic side than melancholic side. He can be really organized in some things such as putting his DVD and Donald Duck collections based on year or alphabetical order, but in some things he's more relaxed than I am. Ever since I married him, I've become more phlegmatic than ever he he he...

    Anyway, I just wanna say that I agree with your sentiment that no matter what, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. They're not the same no matter how many similarities they have.

  7. This is a really interesting post with some equally interesting comments. Gender as usual provokes strong views and debate! Personally I find your post spot on and it chimes exactly with my own experiences and observations in the workplace and home place in general. I disagree with anonymous that it is irrelevant to compare the top numbers of men and women in the workplace - the fact is that graduate intakes are roughly 50;50 men and women, but only 2% of CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are women, and just 15% of board positions are held by women. There is huge attrition of women for a variety of reasons, but one real one is as stated by Katrina, that women don't want to fit into the existing largely male created system. I would like to see those statistics change, because I believe that if you have such a low percentage of women at the top then you are missing a large part of the talent pool and a talent pool which does tend (in general) to have different skill sets/strengths which would together with those of the existing men possibly provide better results for companies/society. Also yes, you are right that there are women dominated industries - and it is interesting that in those too men are disproportionately holding top positions. As for treating children equally I agree that this is critical but it is incredibly difficult to do - go into any clothes shop/toy shop and see what I mean. I try very hard to treat my boys and girl equally - and I think that I succeed on the whole - academically I expect the same, but behaviourally and preference wise I see differences and I am not sure to what degree that is nature or nurture. I really liked your final point Katriina, "equality doesn't mean the same things in the same way. we have to let each other be different."

  8. Thank you to everyone who contributed such insightful comments.

    Amel, I absolutely agree that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus!

    Anonymous, yes, I completely agree about the need to remove barriers, and the need to educate children about respecting each other's strengths and weaknesses, and not assuming someone is talented (or crap) at something based on their gender. I myself feel as though I was brought up to believe this, though at the same time I lived in a household where Mum did everything on the home front (as well as working full-time), and when I was a bit older I suddenly found myself in workplaces which had all kinds of lovely policies about gender equality but typically very few women above four- or fifth-year level. In short, I was taught equality but I felt discouraged when I found that in many cases the theory didn't match what I found in practice. On the face of it, it sounds fine to say "anyone is welcome here as long as they can do the job", but the problem lies in those aspects of the workplace and its culture that have nothing to do with ability to do the actual work. I think we need to go further than educating our children - in some industries, we probably need to shake up the current model. I will also say that one area we need to shake things up is at home. My own experience and my observation of other families is that women (consciously or otherwise) tend to have particular expectations about how and when things should (or shouldn't) be done, and men get pretty frustrated about never being seen to have done enough, or quickly enough, or in the right way.

    Aspire Coaching, I couldn't agree more with your sentiments, and I was a bit shocked to see the statistics you quoted. It is so true that men's and women's different skill sets are often quite complementary, and that meshing these together (rather than trying to make one set identical to the other) could have fantastic results.