Venus, Mars and leaning in…. What if we are missing the point?

What if we are missing the point? The inclination to see differences makes us blind to the overwhelming similarities of men and women, and we’re easily fooled into seeing dissimilarities that don’t exist according to Stephen Holden. His brief review of scientific studies on gender differences shows mixed findings in recent published work, raises the issue that statistical significance is not always significant and points out that when studies look for gender differences and find none they might not even be published. Perhaps we aren’t from Venus after all!

Pointing out that women and men are much more similar than some recent business and pop psychology best sellers suggest is useful but doesn’t explain measurable differences in pay rates and the number of women in senior or board positions or part time roles.

What it does remind us is that these differences are not intrinsic to being male or female so they must be a result of things that can be changed.

Changing long standing, socially entrenched and unconscious biases is difficult. Anna Genat and Robert Wood’s recent work on unconscious bias shows that for all the emphasis on the importance of intuition and “going with gut feeling” we’d be better to slow down and not only respond to what we feel but analyse why we feel it. And this is particularly true when we might stereotype male and female competencies.

So success for individual women and men will be related to their talents and skills but also to how others interpret and value their competencies and more broadly about the physical and cultural structures and supports they have in their professional and personal lives. Skills, confidence and smart positioning are all important but leaning in without appropriate supports results in falling over!

And success is a slippery concept. Mary Walshok recently suggested that Sheryl Sandberg is probably right; success in America requires singular focus on developing leadership skills and a strong power base. But Walshok goes on to question this definition of success and draws on her work on corporate cultures around the world to point out that in the US -and I’d suggest in Australia to a large degree - success and identity relate to career. Whereas she points to other countries that rank higher than America in productivity and quality of life and have very different values which are reflected in the workplace.

She believes we should not be discussing whether women need to change in order to be successful, but to challenge this definition of success and recognise that not just workplaces but communities and families need time leadership and expertise. I agree.

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