Diversity and Gendered Rules in the workplace

By Anastasia Roscia.

Nowadays there is an important debate surrounding female representation in corporate professions. It is obvious that companies operating in prestigious fields such as consulting, law and banking have strengthened their commitment to empowering women. Major firms place obvious effort in bridging the gender pay gap and implement a wide range of initiatives to encourage female progression. Moreover, they argue that diversity provides an invaluable competitive advantage: teams composed of men and women work well together because of the different strengths and weaknesses they bring to the table.

Several law firms have set the target of achieving a certain number of female partners in the near future; others, for instance famous consulting firms, encourage women networks or committees within the company, aimed at promoting valuable networking and undertaking positive initiatives that make women feel included in corporate environments. However, despite these valuable efforts, there are important aspects of gender equality and diversity which tend to be overlooked and forgotten. The problem with this debate surrounding gender discrimination in male-dominated environments is that it tends to forget the impact of gendered values in the workplace.

The problem with many companies’ inclusivity agenda is that they tend to overlook the value of integrating the “feminine values” highlighted by many feminist studies. Corporate environments are notoriously aggressive, competitive, and tend to require employees to work long hours: these reflect what studies attribute to male values and behaviours. At the same time, building positive personal relationships, supportive collaboration and giving employees the choice to pursue family commitments seem to have little or no priority in such environments. Interestingly, feminine values are usually connected to the sphere of emotions, relations and empathy: modern workplaces seem to perpetuate gendered values, placing much emphasis on the masculine and neglecting the feminine.

There have been countless articles and studies on how gendered values permeate our society, and how stereotypical masculine behaviours are embedded in certain professions and workplaces. This makes it difficult for women to embrace the masculine “set of rules” and make it impossible for them to reach their professional career goals i.e. progress to a senior position. Moreover, office environments where masculine values are seen as the pinnacle of professionalism risk being dysfunctional and even less competitive from s business point of view. In “How masculinity contests undermine organizations, and what to do about it” published in the Business Harvard Review, the authors reflect on the toxic nature of work environments. Typically male values such as stamina, risk-taking, competitiveness and extreme ambition may contribute to cut-throat and unhealthy workplaces where working incredibly long-hours and putting work before family is seen as a sign of true commitment. The authors suggest that these kinds of office environments are stressful and present high turnover rates, as well as mental health issues such as burn out and anxiety.

Many women find that modern workplaces are not the best fit for their values, behaviours and necessities, given that these are built around typically male values such as career, competition, self-promotion and working extreme long-hours. It is not surprising then that women are torn between their careers and, for example, the desire to have a family and raise children; they are painfully aware that stepping down or reducing time spent in the office might prevent them from reaching their professional goals. Giving priority to their family is perceived as a weakness, rather than having a healthy set of priorities. Many women (and men!) express concern about a lack of work/life balance, and how concentrating solely on their job may affect their personal life.

The unhealthy work-life balance present in prestigious professions ends up being the emblematic example of how these workplaces are reflective of male values. It is not a case that feminist studies highlight how women tend to value relationships the most, and how this is generally seen as a weakness by the wider society. Moreover, successful women describe how they had to adapt to a set of rules which are typically masculine and are likely to make them feel alienated, less valued and, overall, less happy in the workplace. As stated in my previous article focused on class migrants and social mobility, minorities as well as disadvantaged groups tend to conform and imitate to the “set of rules” that are associated with professionalism (white, male, upper-class etc.). Given that workplaces reflect the wider (perhaps unconscious) societal attitudes towards gender, social class and race (to name a few), it is not a surprise that women do not feel valued and included.

So, does this mean that feminine values cannot be integrated or are less valuable than masculine behaviours? To answer this question, I think it would be useful to rediscover “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development” by Carol Gilligan, a landmark study for feminism. Gilligan argues that men tend to solve moral problems through absolute and abstract thinking, using “law-oriented” values and absolute ideas of justice. By contrast, women’s “ethic of care” is more about valuing relationships and judging each situation according to its own merits. Moreover, she emphasises that women’s approach to moral thinking is as valuable as men’s emphasis on absolute moral fairness.

I think Gilligan’s work is particularly interesting because it highlights how society favours male over feminine values and how different values are associated with masculinity and femininity: the real difference is that society praises male behaviours and ways of thinking while neglecting and downplaying the feminine point of view. Although Gilligan was referring to moral thinking and moral development, I think that these considerations could be well applied to modern workplaces as well. Women (and men) who display typically feminine values/behaviours such as empathy and emotional engagement tend to be considered “weak” and “unprofessional”. I believe that the “ethic of care” described by Gilligan echoes the positive characteristics of empathy, teamwork and supportive engagement which are generally associated with femininity (according to feminist studies), as well as the wider society and modern workplaces.

In conclusion, instead of focusing solely on the percentage of women in senior positions, the debate should emphasise how masculine values are still perceived as a sign of professionalism, whereas female values are associated with unprofessionalism. By integrating and balancing both, businesses can drive towards a future workplace where everyone feels included and engaged, and diversity competitive advantage pays dividends.

Disclaimer: I would like to emphasise that gendered values as I intend them in this article are stereotypical societal constructs that might be true for some individuals a not for others: for instance, there may be men that behave according to more “feminine” values (i.e. empathy) or women that displace stereotypical male values (i.e. being aggressive).

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