Gender Diversity in the 21st Century Workplace

April 4, 2015 by Margaret Townsend
Cognitive Bias and Workplace Gender Diversity

What will diversity look like ten years from now, a quarter way through the 21st Century?

Is gender diversity relevant as the lines between male and female, their attributes, behaviors and roles become more and more blurred? Are male and female brains different anyway and are we dealing with gender bias the right way when we are conducting job interviews, choosing job candidates and business partners? 

Brainier because of, well, bigger brains.  Not Really.

Prior to the 20th century and in a world already dominated by men, it was a commonly held view that men were intellectually superior to women and this view was justified in the main by studies showing men had larger and heavier brains.  I know where your mind has jumped to right now.  You have immediately conjured up all those anecdotes and jokes about how and whether size matters! But let’s take this seriously for a second without getting too scientific!

Moving on to the 21st Century and in a 2004 study by Haier et al. it was found that differences in brain physiology between the sexes did not necessarily relate to differences in general intellect.  It is clear that males and females can potentially have the ability to be better than each other in performance of different tasks associated with different areas of the brain, irrespective of how big or small their brains are, but that does not prove any one sex is more intelligent than the other.

The ‘g’ Factor.

In an attempt to get a general measurement of one’s intelligence or IQ, the ‘g’ factor was established.  This measurement was based around the idea that a person’s performance or ability on different tasks correlated, relative to the underlying mental requirement to perform those tasks.  To explain this in a very simplistic way, a person who has a good memory will perform better than those who don’t at just about any job where memory plays a fundamental role irrespective of whether they happen to be male or female.  The same goes for all other cognitive functioning such as spatial awareness, language, emotion, thinking, perception, learning, etc.

Let’s stop and think about this a little deeper, apply the concept to real life.  Imagine that your life partner is good with finances at home, deals with the financial institutions when you need to get a loan, save or invest.  He/she knows instinctively how to budget effectively and make savings on a weekly and monthly basis, pays bills and gets better utility deals.   There are probably a mix of two or three underlying cognitive traits which allow those duties to be performed well.  With the right training those natural skills could be effectively applied to many careers.

These are transferable skills and this is the main reason why people are capable of and do change careers and move into different roles and industries.  Good recruiters watch for underlying traits and skills when assessing candidates for suitability all the time, although they often forget that these underlying traits can present themselves in social settings and informal situations and can overlook great candidates as a result. Sadly, candidates themselves often forget this too and do not portray their real abilities effectively when applying for jobs.

Enough with the Gender Focus.

The basic cognitive abilities you and I possess can be applied to hundreds of different roles and situations on a daily and lifelong basis, but you might be thinking that the real question is, are there things a man can do, that no woman could possibly do and vice-verse?  Because it is only in that scenario that incorporating gender diversity would benefit an affected third party, such as an employer or customer. 

Or you might want to say that, alternatively, if both could perform any task in equal measure then it would be just down to past experience, likability and political correctness as to whether one person should be hired over another.

But we all need to think twice.  What we really need to focus on with the current and emerging generations is not the fact of whether the person is male or female, but rather whether they can call up those traits that are required of the job. No more, no less.  Whether those traits were linked to men or women in the past is no longer relevant. 

Things are changing.  Humans are adapting and evolving.  Our early childhood environments are changing and so too is the world we grow into.  Discoveries are being made.  The human brain – male or female – is only slowly being understood.  For instance, the formation of gender itself has remained controversial in many scientific fields and recent research has shown that a brain’s ‘gender’ may be quite flexible.  

Many still believe male and female brains are wired differently, while others, such as Professor Gina Rippon, a British Neuroscientist believe that “this is a myth which has no basis in science.”  She says that “any differences are tiny and are the result of environment not biology.”  It makes sense that the things we experience determine to a large degree which traits – or areas of our brains – are developed most.

‘M’ and ‘F’ No Longer Relevant.

The mistake we have been making is to stigmatize people by their gender.  We have pigeonholed people based on their sex and that needs to change.  It’s not about simply hiring more women within male dominated professions – or the other way around – in some measured way immediately to increase the ratio.  We need to instead forget about ‘F’ and ‘M’ and hone in on skills, cognitive traits, qualifications and experience and allow true diversity to evolve naturally. 

Perhaps we should never know a job candidate’s name until suitability for the job has been established, so that there is no chance of bias occurring, even accidentally or subconsciously.  Making objective hiring decisions in this way, along with more variation in education and experience for females from early childhood would eventually ‘even the score’, and have the right people in the right jobs, whatever their sex.

Also women shouldn’t trade one skill for another to get into male dominated careers because that is not progression.  They shouldn’t dampen their natural cognitive abilities whilst developing others, just because they feel pressure of competition with men.  If women continue in this way they will end up segregated, underdeveloped and lagging behind men intellectually anyway because men are adapting.

Why These Men Are Leading the Way.

During the past year I had to undergo a minor medical surgery. It was many years since I had been admitted to hospital for any reason and my memories of back then are of being surrounded by female only nursing staff, with the exception of a surgeon who I don’t even remember.

My experience this time shocked me – in a nice way!  Two thirds of the staff I had any interaction with, apart from the caterers, were men. Because the nurses, surgeon and anesthetist were all male it meant that 90% of my care was handled by men.  This in itself isn’t the shocking bit.  What really surprised me was that they were all not only good at, but took very seriously, the job of making me feel safe and comfortable. 

The surgeon may have had an IQ close to Einstein’s and based on cognitive traits more prevalent in males, but he was nevertheless able to recognize the practical need to offer comforting and reassuring words which calmed my vitals when nervously anticipating anesthesia.  And the other men who worked with him were exactly the same.

The morning after my surgery I fainted – in my underwear – when trying to get dressed and the nurses were nothing less than efficient and reassuring, while preserving my dignity and looking after my health. I didn’t even notice their gender at the time and it’s only now I realize I was surrounded by men in what should have felt like a very vulnerable situation.

Their brains may have been ‘wired’ differently to females when they were babies, but these men are nevertheless able to call on the more ‘female’ parts of their brains when the need arises in order to perform to the best of their abilities, to ensure the job is done right.  They were men, working in what had been traditionally female stereotypical roles.  They have learned the benefits to their profession of a caring, calming attitude and I would challenge any woman to do a better job of it.  I doubt they could.

This is a great example of why we should look for traits in candidates, not gender labels.  Hire for the right reasons as we move forward.

And ladies, keep your nature given talents and build on them.  Follow the example set by these men and diversity will take care of itself.

About the Author

Margaret Townsend
An experienced recruiter and job seeker, now co-founder of a private job search website. Blogs are full of practical tips and advice on career development, work-life balance, the job search and the job interview. Also writes in-depth unique articles about workplace issues such as gender diversity, HR practices, culture fit, employee engagement and gainful employment.


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