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Sexual Politics

May 1, 1995
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Related Topics: Harassment, Diversity, Featured Article
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So you think your company is dealing with gender issues? Think again. Men and women have had it with each other and it's high time you paid attention. Picture the U.S. workplace as a boxing ring. In one corner, the American male worker—seething, resentful, a little smug, and sick and tired of all the accusations leveled at him by members of the "fairer" sex. In the other corner, the American female—jaw set, fists up, and bound and determined to gain more respect, power, money and understanding from the men who rule corporate America.

She, quite frankly, is sick of accommodating men, proving herself over and over again, and waiting patiently for the creeps in the big leather chairs to "get it;" to stop being such insensitive, narrow-minded jerks who only encourage and promote clones of themselves. "Pay me what I'm worth," she says, "and promote me on my merits. What's so hard about that?"

He, on the other hand, wonders if she'll ever stop whining and start acting like an adult. He's tired of censoring everything he says, and sick to death of being blamed for the oppression of women in this society. "You want my respect?" he asks. "Earn it. And take a look around. Lots of women are making it today. What's your problem?"

If you were the bookmaker for this match, on whose head would you place higher odds? His, because men do hold the power in this society and the situation isn't likely to change significantly in the near future? Or hers, because she does deserve better treatment and more authority than she's been getting? Your answer, of course, may depend on who wears the pants in your family. But, frankly, you shouldn't be betting on either gender. Any clear winner in the battle of the sexes means a giant loss for American enterprise.

Does all the tension between men and women sound grossly overstated? Hardly. The fact is, gender relations in the workplace are worse than they've ever been because we've patently ignored the real reasons behind gender warfare: Women want more power, and men don't want to share it; men and women really are different, and we've overlooked those differences for far too long; and the ceaseless change in our society has all of us feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable and more eager to find scapegoats than ever before. And let's face it: the opposite sex makes for an easy target.

What's more, the things human resources professionals think they're doing to mitigate gender strife, including sexual harassment workshops, work-family programs and diversity initiatives, may actually be exacerbating the conflict.

Conflict arises from the pursuit of power.
Let's talk about what everybody in corporate America is afraid to talk about: power and power-sharing between the sexes. Men, who have held all the power positions for years, are feeling more vulnerable than ever. In terms of sheer numbers, more white men have lost their jobs through downsizing and restructuring than any other group of Americans, and those who are left with a paycheck are determined to keep it come hell or high water.

Unfortunately, their job losses have come at the same time that more companies are recognizing the need to recruit and promote more women into management positions. These men, to put it mildly, aren't eager to share their power, especially with women they feel may not be qualified for the job, or worse, may abuse that power once they attain it.

"Women who have gotten into good positions are afraid men are going to take their jobs away, so they take a 'CYA—cover-your-ass'—approach to management," says Jim Hart, a private psychotherapist in Acton, Massachusetts, and former vice president with Mediplex behavioral treatment centers in Boston. Hart, who has been looking for a management job since Mediplex was sold six months ago, has been interviewed by women for five different positions. In each case, he says, he believes the females who interviewed him were threatened by his credentials. "I was perfect for those jobs, but the women interviewing me were afraid I would eventually overtake them, even though I told them I didn't want their jobs. And I'm not alone," he adds. "A lot of men I know are running into this."

Hart may have a point. A recent study conducted by Drake Beam Morin Inc. found that for the third year in a row in 1994, women at the executive level were able to find new jobs about a month faster than men on average. However, women still feel that corporations—or, more to the point, the men who run them—don't want them at the top no matter how exemplary their performance. A survey conducted for Working Woman magazine by the Louis Harris polling firm found that female executives still feel like aliens who are "frozen out of the old-boy network and unable to advance beyond an unshatterable glass ceiling." After 20 years of fighting the battle for advancement, women are tired: Tired of being patient; tired of waiting until their numbers are large enough to challenge the status quo; tired of waiting for the wage gap to narrow; and tired of adopting male work and communication styles in an effort to play by their rules.

"Women are mad because they feel like they've been doing the adapting for years," explains Judith C. Tingley, author of "Genderflex: Men and Women Speaking Each Other's Language at Work." Women have believed that the more they're "like men," the more likely they are to be admitted to the inner circle. They've worn the navy blue suits, they've altered their styles to be more manly, and now, when they hear disgruntled men accuse powerful women of protecting their hard-won turf, they have very little sympathy.

Women especially are tired of having to be better than men just to keep on par with them. A communications manager at a Southern California-based pharmaceutical company says, "Women are regarded as harder workers around here by both the male and female bosses. Yet you look at all the corporate veeps and there's only one woman—and she's pretty manly. What does that tell you?"

Women, and probably most men, have long recognized that people in power exhibit certain behavioral characteristics and, to get ahead, it's best to assume those characteristics to the greatest extent possible. But are those characteristics associated with gender or with power itself? Although little scholarly study has been done on the issue, strong opinions abound.

A group of eight men who are suing their former employer, Del Mar, California-based Jenny Craig International, for sex discrimination and sexual harassment, would probably support the latter theory—that power leads people to oppress others, and that men are not oppressors by nature. According to a New York Times report, the "Jenny Craig Eight" are saying they were fired, denied promotion or given unfavorable assignments because they were outsiders in a female-dominated corporate culture. The men complain about sexual remarks—one plaintiff said his female supervisor told him she dreamed of him naked; another was told he had "tight buns." They say they have been negatively stereotyped. For example, one was told he was "sensitive for a guy." They claim they have been assigned tasks, such as shoveling snow, because of their gender rather than because of their job description. And they protest being bombarded with "girl talk," about pregnancy and menstrual periods.

Commenting on the case, Jane Brayton, an official at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, says: "It's the same stuff; it's just that sometimes the "he" turns into a "she." Nothing's changed. The majority keeps putting down the minority."

Stories like this aren't at all surprising to Hart, who strongly agrees that power, and not gender differences per se, is at the root of all this seething tension. "Women have complained for years about all the 'Hitlers' in power in corporate America," he says. "But now, as more women have attained powerful positions, I'm seeing a ton of 'Hitlerettes.'"

Mary Mattis, vice president of research and advisory services for Catalyst in New York City, also believes that escalating gender tension is a result of power, or more specifically, a power imbalance between men and women. "This isn't so much about gender as it is about power-sharing," she says, "and we shouldn't be so totally alarmed that this issue is coming to a head. There's a national shifting of power under way, and we're naive if we think men don't feel threatened." It's much easier for us to talk about more superficial differences in communication and management style, she adds, than it is to talk about power-sharing.

The experience of young men and women entering the work force further substantiates this theory of power as the root cause of gender combat, because male-female relations are best among young adults. They've gone to school together, they've roomed side by side in dormitories, they've played in co-ed intramural sports. Men and women enter the work force as chums, but when the first set of promotions and blue-chip projects are offered, and they must compete against each other for those opportunities, suddenly it's the boys against the girls. The young women think men get better jobs because men in power are more comfortable hiring others who are like them, and men think women have a leg up, so to speak, because of some hidden Affirmative Action or diversity agenda. Apparently, it's much harder to set aside differences when you're talking about economic survival than it was when your only worry was what to be when you grow up.

The power struggle intensifies in an unstable work environment.
This competition for a paycheck is another reason why men and women are locking horns more these days. When human beings feel vulnerable, they lash out more at those with obvious differences. And with the enormous restructuring under way in corporate America, everyone feels threatened these days. The eroding recession, the changing nature of jobs and the fact that the corporate pie no longer is big enough for everyone has all of us bewildered, under stress and suspicious of our colleagues. Promotions used to be the reward for hard work, but flatter organizations have fewer top spots toward which to advance. For better or worse, men and women are being forced to compete more against each other—not only for the precious few advancement opportunities, but to hold the positions they've already attained.

"When people are threatened, they start to behave in a primitive survival mode," says George Simons, a gender and diversity consultant in Santa Cruz, California. They start looking for places to put their anger, for people to blame. In this kind of environment, everyone who's "different" becomes a target, he says. A man working with a female sales partner, for example, may start to feel threatened if she becomes more successful. But instead of attributing her success to hard work, he, who is under pressure already, may claim she seduced customers. A female, on the other hand, who witnesses a male partner's success, may be more likely to attribute that success to the old-boy network.

"Popping off, name calling and gender slurs are becoming much more common because of the stress we all are operating under," Simons adds, which also partly explains the increase in such things as gay bashing and white supremacist groups. People are harried by the changing nature of work, they're irritable, and as a result they're less likely to overlook differences and more likely to ascribe problems to them. The fact that men and women have ignored their differences for so long has only added fuel to the fire.

"I have completely shut down. I don't even know how to be friendly without getting strange looks."

"It used to be politically taboo to talk about the differences between men and women," says Simons, because different meant inferior and equality meant sameness. In seeking equality, the idea was to downplay any behavioral characteristics associated with gender. The goal was androgyny. Men were supposed to be more sensitive, women more assertive. Men started wearing floral ties; women, padded shoulders. It wasn't long before all employees started to check their hormones at the office door because the way to deal with our differences became to ignore them, to neuter ourselves.

Unfortunately, ignoring the very real differences between men and women has only heightened our inability to deal with them. Women still don't understand why men express friendship by punching each other. Men still don't understand why women seem to share so many secrets among themselves. Women don't understand why men cuss. Men don't know why women care. Women are exasperated because men still don't listen. Men still want women to say exactly what's on their minds. And on and on and on. It's why men and women are keyed up on opposite sides of the boxing ring.

Granted, we're starting to talk about our differences, but the discussion is tentative; it makes us nervous, and our discomfort shows up as intolerance. Until we get to the point where we can acknowledge those differences, be proud of them, and embrace the benefits of varying approaches and perspectives, men and women likely are to be stuck in an antagonistic, "he-said, she-said" mentality. Furthermore, before we begin to grapple like adults with the many ways our differences impact the workplace, we have to look at the ways HR professionals have unwittingly been fueling the gender fire.

Sexual-harassment, diversity-awareness and family-friendly programs can serve as kindling.
Indeed, well-meaning HR programs can increase gender tension. Take, for example, programs to prevent sexual harassment. These programs, which are designed to raise awareness of the kinds of sexually-oriented behaviors that are inappropriate for the workplace, have in many companies polarized the work force, making men feel defensive and women feel victimized.

Even though blatant sexual harassment is perpetrated by only a very small percentage of males, the awareness of the issue and the emphasis on "thou shalt nots" have many working men afraid to interact too closely with women. Increasingly, stories are told about men who won't lunch with a woman, travel with a woman, have discussions with a woman behind closed office doors, or even ride in an elevator with a woman unless other employees are present. A sales and marketing manager who supervises nine women at a San Diego based publishing company put it this way: "I have completely shut down. I don't even know how to be friendly without getting strange looks."

According to Aaron Kipnis, co-director of the Gender Relations Institute in Santa Barbara, California, sexual-harassment programs have been extremely successful at raising fear and anxiety, inhibiting spontaneity and communication, and distancing women and men. Fearing their behaviors will be misinterpreted, both sexes have become "like robots." Men find themselves talking much more slowly because they're evaluating everything they say. They wonder why the term "lady" has become such a no-no. Women, on the other hand, start questioning whether or not they should wear perfume or jewelry or dress the way they normally would. "Am I somehow encouraging harassment?" they wonder.

"Awareness of the issue is good," Kipnis says, "but we have to move away from the kind of reactive training we've been offering (since much of this training was established in the wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle) and move toward more proactive, inclusive training that increases our overall understanding of each other's behaviors."

If sexual harassment courses have created a hairline fracture between men and women, diversity-awareness programs have become the wedge that's cracking those relationships apart. Not that awareness of our differences is bad, especially since greater understanding of each other is our goal. The problem is that in many companies diversity programs have been mismanaged. They have become what George Simons calls "a faddish fix-all," offered by inexperienced trainers to fulfill some vague HR mandate. Furthermore, white males believe diversity programs simply encourage women and minorities to vent their anger, which only increases the simmering antagonism between women and men.

Ken Richardson, a white male administrator with the Licking County Sheriff's office in Ohio, was one of five white males in a racially and sexually diverse group of 30 who attended a week-long diversity program in 1992. Having lived in a mixed neighborhood and abroad, Richardson says he has always respected differences. But, as reported in Business Week, Richardson says other participants at the training session blamed him for everything from slavery to the glass ceiling, and the instructor fed into this white-male bashing. "I became bitter and remain so," he says.

In an attempt to address this bitterness, companies such as AT&T have started to offer workshops with titles such as: "White males: The label, the dilemma." The goal, according to AT&T spokesperson Burke Stinson, is to allow men to talk about their growing feelings of resentment. "White men don't want to be categorized or reduced to a cliche anymore than anyone else does," he explains. Courses such as this bring the diversity issue full circle by addressing everyone's concerns, and they're a good first step toward bringing white men back into the corporate melting pot. But male resentment runs deep and stems not only from diversity-awareness programs, but from strategic diversity goals as well.

Recognizing the business benefits of a diverse work force, more and more companies are establishing goals and timetables for hiring more women into management positions and "non-traditional" jobs. Some companies are even holding management personnel accountable through their paychecks for promoting more women. It's an important step on the way to diversity and equality, and women champion these efforts. Some men, however, believe these programs lead to the promotion of less-qualified females, especially in organizations where, because of past discrimination, managers are forced by consent decree to hire a certain percentage of women.

Several years ago, at the Angeles National Forest in Arcadia, California, a consent decree mandated that the organization hire more females, provide written justification whenever a woman wasn't hired, file quarterly reports on the makeup of the work force, and provide ongoing training on issues related to sexual harassment and sexual discrimination.

According to Sandiann Engh, employee development specialist, the male workers believed that some of the women hired into positions such as police officer and smoke jumper weren't nearly as qualified as many of the men who had applied, and that managers had hired women simply to fulfill quotas and avoid the paperwork hassle. The men believed hiring less-qualified people put their own lives at risk, and they were angry about it. Furthermore, after several years of mandatory sexual-harassment training, everybody—men and women alike—was on edge and "closed down." The women felt defensive; the men, resentful.

Resentment is something many men in the work force are feeling these days, and who can blame them? Diversity programs and sexual-harassment courses have been designed primarily with the needs of women in mind. Men are portrayed as the bad guys, the perpetrators, the oppressors, the force to fight against. Because of this, men feel their needs go unrecognized, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the way work-family programs have been marketed to employees.

According to Harris Sussman, president of Workways, an organizational consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, many men are starting to feel marginalized and neglected because their needs as family members are being overlooked. "Family-friendly policies are written as if only women are parents and, as a result, a lot of men believe their role as a parent isn't valued by management," he explains. These policies talk about working mothers, single mothers, mothers with sick children. "But men are parents too, and my advice for HR people is to understand that these directives shouldn't address women only. This only adds to the tension between men and women."

Relieving the tension requires first recognizing there's a problem.
Consultants who deal with workplace gender issues seem to agree that managers have ignored the mudslinging between men and women just about as long as they can. "It's been possible to push gender issues out of the way, so we've been doing it to the greatest extent possible," explains Mary Martinez, leader of the work force diversity center at Organization Resources Counselors Inc. in New York City.

One theory of why gender issues have been ignored says that because women are the keepers of relationships in this society, they're more likely to notice tension and inequities before their male counterparts. Prior to conducting a class on gender issues, Tingley asked 100 lawyers—50 men and 50 women—if they thought gender relations were a problem at their firm. Not one male lawyer recognized that there was a problem, whereas 100% of the women said there was.

"Because men aren't very relationship-oriented, they might not be as compelled to pursue programs designed to alleviate gender tension," Tingley says. And since men still hold most of the top HR positions, this could explain why gender relationships at work aren't being adequately addressed.

But an even more likely reason is that gender tension is such a loaded topic. It's fraught with emotion and disagreement. Men and women not only have trouble agreeing on the source of the problem, but within each sex there's great debate.

The first step toward defusing the tension is for HR people to acknowledge there is a problem between men and women in the workplace, and that a lot of those problems are subtle. Blatant sexual discrimination and harassment come to the attention of the HR department, but HR never hears about a lot of the awkwardness of micro-inequities—such things as a woman's point of view not being acknowledged at meetings. It's up to personnel professionals to go looking for those problems.

At Deloitte & Touche, L.L.P., based in Wilton, Connecticut, partners formed a task force in 1991 to find out why so many talented women were leaving the firm prior to becoming candidates for partnership. One of the reasons, the task force discovered, was that women were constantly confronting negative stereotypes about them by the male senior partners. During a 10-year period, the company had an enormous influx of women into professional positions but there had never been any discussion about what it was like to be a man or woman working at Deloitte & Touche, explains Karen Graci, senior manager for national HR.

Once the firm understood that sexual differences were getting in the way of productivity, it was able to initiate a dialogue between men and women. Through a series of two-day workshops, attended by some 5,000 managers and partners, the firm sought to understand its gender issues, uncover assumptions related to gender, and recognize the business implications of gender tension. To keep the dialogue going, the company regularly brings in external speakers on gender topics, covers gender issues in in-house newsletters and memoranda, and sponsors focus groups where men and women can air their concerns.

Creating an environment, like Deloitte & Touche did, in which people can air their concerns and confront each other in a nonthreatening way, is a crucial second step—after acknowledging there is a problem—toward thawing the big chill between men and women. Remember the situation at Angeles National Forest, where women were ostensibly hired over more qualified men, and everybody was tense because of the mandated sexual-harassment prevention courses? Well, in an attempt to remedy the situation, Engh hired Kipnis and his partner, Elizabeth Herron, from the Gender Relations Institute, to host a series of what they called "gender summits."

"Too many companies rush for a quick-fix solution and then are disappointed. I don't think a four-hour training course will fix anything."

Male and female employees were brought together in groups of approximately 20 to air their issues about working with the opposite sex, including their frustration over quotas, communication-style differences and the way sexual-harassment training and the forced "reporting environment" made everyone feel as if they were working in a fishbowl.

As Kipnis and Herron explain, relations between the sexes had gotten so contentious that the men and women had to be separated at the start of each summit—the men went with Kipnis, the women with Herron—before they would talk openly. When they were brought back together, the problems experienced by each group were shared and, together, the men and women talked about their feelings related to the work environment. Each summit then ended with a discussion about what employees liked about working with the opposite sex.

What kind of impact did the summits have on gender relations back at work? "By allowing people to air their views, a great deal of tension was alleviated," Engh says. And does she think the change will have a lasting impact? "Probably not. I think a change of this magnitude—men truly accepting women in the workplace—will require a generation. Too many companies rush for a quick-fix solution and then are disappointed. I don't think a four-hour training course will fix anything, but in the short term, it helped."

E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Company in Wilmington, Delaware, also has started to grapple with gender differences through a three-day program called "Men and Women Working as Colleagues." The voluntary workshop is designed, as the title suggests, to help men and women deal effectively with co-workers of the opposite sex. Open and promoted to everyone in the company, it covers interpersonal and leadership skills, raises issues related to workplace changes, and includes a host of team-building exercises. What prompted DuPont to offer such a course? "Our industry, like many others, has historically been male-dominated," explains Bob Hamilton, diversity consultant in HR. "We realized that our male employees have had little experience and training in how to work with women. We've never learned how to compete with women, and we're unsure as to whether the way we interact and compete with men will work as well with the opposite gender."

Although ahead of most companies in terms of dealing with gender issues, even DuPont has a long way to go. Since launching its course five years ago, only 2,500 employees—out of a U.S. work force of 90,000—have participated. Realistically speaking, how much impact can less than 3% of the work force have on the rest of the employees? The point is, truly positive changes in gender relations will take time. "Trying to change an attitude isn't like learning a new software program," Tingley says.

Personnel professionals who are courageous enough to begin grappling with gender issues can rest assured that by recognizing there's a problem they're already ahead of the game. In contemporary American society, everybody's role is undergoing revision, and the standards of acceptable behavior are changing rapidly. "The workplace needs to catch up with the rest of the world," says Sussman, because HR policies that make archaic assumptions about men and women will only contribute to the tension that already exists between the two sexes. HR professionals should be looking at the realities of people's lives today.

If George Foreman and Mohammed Ali were brought together in that boxing ring described earlier, we'd expect them to fight using their particular strengths. Although their skill might be equal, they would probably exhibit different techniques. It's what makes the sport interesting. It's what encourages each fighter to improve. It's what keeps the spectators engaged. Furthermore, between Ali and Foreman, we accept that the battle is about power, about being the best, about coming out on top.

Unlike in a heavyweight match, in the battle of the sexes we don't want a clear winner. But we do want our differences to make our companies better. And before we can tap into the power of our differences, we have to acknowledge the differences in our power.

If you find yourself thinking that for the most part men and women do get along fairly well together at work, you'd be both right and deluding yourself. Yes, we get along together because we're forced to, but a lot of men and woman are having trouble with that forced togetherness, and it's high time HR paid attention. As Catalyst's Mary Mattis says, "Corporate America would like to think it has got this thing licked. But it doesn't." In fact, it has only just begun.

Personnel Journal, May 1995, Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 50-61.


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