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Gender and Communication in the Workplace
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JOFA Blog

Gender and Communication in the Workplace

 For more than a year, we have seen frequent exposés of senior professionals who have harassed or assaulted subordinates. The current wave of actions addressing this workplace misbehavior is overdue and critical for supporting healthy work environments. But I believe that, for most people, the types of misbehaviors experienced at work are less severe than these extreme cases, yet they are more persistent and pervasive, affecting  careers and daily lives.

I am involved in managing the work of hundreds of people in my role as chief operating officer of an organizational subdivision, and I serve on management teams for the parent organization that has more than 20,000 employees. The demographic diversity of this workforce is significant; there is a tremendous range of ages, races, religions, hair colors, sexual orientations, and every other characteristic. What is really amazing and awe-inspiring, though, is not the demographic diversity, but the huge range of differences in how people speak, behave, think about the world, and react to one another.

 

Differences in Communication Styles as Correlated to Gender

Some of the differences in communication style and behavior correlate with gender. For example, I have more often seen men than women attempt to be intimidating as a strategy for getting their way. I have more often seen men than women choose to belittle others as a way of punishing or marginalizing them and their ideas. I have certainly seen more men than women choose to make sexual comments or to be overtly sexual in a way they know will not be welcome, in order to puff up their own power in a situation.

On the other hand, I have more often seen women than men choose to stop speaking to a colleague whom they are mad at as a way of punishing the other, or simply not dealing with an interpersonal problem. I have more often seen women than men use gossip as a way of punishing or marginalizing others. And I have seen more women than men use flirting as a tactic to create relationships that will advance their place in the team.

Both women and men often treat people of one gender differently from the way they treat the other gender. The extent to which women in particular roles are expected by colleagues—both men and women—to be responsible for things that would never occur to them to expect of a man in that role is an ongoing problem. In a meeting in which someone needs to take notes, it is more likely that a woman will be asked to do it (or will volunteer). In a work group of equals, when everyone agrees that some clerical follow-up is needed, a woman is more likely to be asked or volunteer to coordinate this (although a man is more likely to volunteer if he has an assistant he can turn it over to).

 

Women  Share Responsibility

Women are as responsible for the different treatments we get as men are. We volunteer for different things and accept being treated in certain ways. We are more likely to accept a more relationship-building and less decision-oriented role than men, even when we have a job title that a man would not fill in the same way.  I have been involved with hiring at all levels, from clerical jobs to positions that require doctorates, and have observed that women are less likely to attempt to negotiate salary or other work conditions—yet a woman who does negotiate aggressively is more likely to be perceived in a negative way by both men and women. 

It was an experience with negotiating a decade ago that highlighted for me the different ways we perceive the same behavior based on gender. A male colleague of mine made an offer of employment to a female candidate. The offer was in line with the median offers generally made for that job type; these offers include a number of work conditions in addition to salary. The candidate negotiated hard, to the point at which my colleague became concerned that it had been a mistake to have made her an offer at all, that she would be a very difficult employee if she came. He considered rescinding the offer altogether, but realized that once it had been made, it would be unethical to take it back. He held the line on his original terms, hoping she would turn the offer down, but ultimately she accepted.  Initially I saw this situation through his eyes and, along with him, prepared to welcome and orient a new employee who was going to be very challenging. 

 About a year after this young woman had joined us, I reflected that she had actually been an extremely engaging, smart, team-playing person, but not someone who was content to be a quiet observer, as many new junior coworkers, both men and women, are. I realized that my colleague who made the offer had experienced aggressive negotiating from men but had never reacted negatively to it; it had only increased his respect for those candidates. I suddenly saw that his reaction was a pattern of subtle bias he had exhibited over time, and that he assigned very different meaning to the same behavior expressed by a man  and a woman. I also realized that, too often, I fell into that same way of thinking. We have unconscious expectations of how people should behave given their gender, age, ethnicity, and other characteristics, and when they don’t behave that way it feels uncomfortable. When we sense a problem, we tend to believe that the  problem is with the other person.

We have unconscious expectations of how people should behave given their gender, age, ethnicity, and other characteristics, and when they don’t behave that way it feels uncomfortable. When we sense a problem, we tend to believe that the  problem is with the other person.

 

Becoming More Aware

There are, of course, very productive strategies that people employ that correlate with gender as well. I have more often seen women than men tend to the relational aspects of work groups, trying to make sure everyone feels that they have a voice and are happy with outcomes. I have more often seen men than women avoid taking feedback personally and moving on when their ideas are not widely accepted.

The catalog of gender-related behavior patterns is extensive. Women may hold themselves back through lack of confidence that they can do the next job up or fear of taking some risk. Women express themselves with qualifiers—“I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but …”—or with tag lines that ask for reassurance—“I think xyz, don’t you?” Both men and women are more careful to give a man than a woman “face” to ensure that he does not feel that he is being asked to be too subservient in a work role.

Many of these behavioral and communication tactics are used unconsciously. People don’t necessarily think through how they are acting or reacting, but rather employ strategies that they have internalized over a lifetime by watching their parents, mentors, and colleagues—and, too often, people are employing behaviors that, if they would think about them, they would not choose to adopt.

This is the critical point. We must work hard to be “woke” about gender (and racial) issues in the workplace. We must work hard to be aware of our behavior and the behavior of others. We should strive to act and communicate as we feel is ideal and not allow ourselves to react instinctively. 

Research shows that women are interrupted more often than men when speaking, but regardless of who is interrupted, we can each try to hear when it happens and be the person who politely says to the interrupter, “Excuse me, I would like to hear the rest of Susan’s idea.” When someone wants to share gossip about a colleague, we can be the person who understands the negative impact it has on the workplace and not participate in the conversation. When someone asks who would be willing to take notes in a meeting, we can suggest that turns be taken alphabetically at each meeting, rather than volunteering ourselves.

 

What Orthodox Women Bring to the Workplace

For Orthodox Jewish women, there is an additional layer to contend with as we make our way through the work environment. Whether we affiliate with a mainstream Orthodox synagogue or with a partnership community, in our Jewish communal and ritual lives we live with certain gender differences and separations. Whether we are comfortable with it or struggle with it, we are part of a community in which rabbis (therefore, almost exclusively men) have most major decision-making roles. Within our families, the fact that men have certain obligations and women do not leads to some gendered patterns of behavior even in families in which both the husband and wife feel passionately about equality. In addition, most of us have internalized a range of Jewish values, such as respecting those in authority and those who are older, and these affect workplace behavior as well as personal relationships.

Naturally, Orthodox Jewish women bring our religious values and the experience of our personal and communal lives with us to the workplace. For some of us, these make it harder to address gender inequalities at work because we accept those differences in our personal communities.

Naturally, Orthodox Jewish women bring our religious values and the experience of our personal and communal lives with us to the workplace. For some of us, these make it harder to address gender inequalities at work because we accept those differences in our personal communities. Especially when most of the senior colleagues are men, it can be hard for Orthodox women to be comfortable pushing against the behavioral norms, even if those norms are inappropriate in the workplace.

Our religious values, if expressed in our behavior, should make us wonderful work colleagues: being respectful of others, responsible for providing value to our employers, careful not to gossip, and regularly thanking others. However, our values should also mean that, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, we will try to effectively address practices in the workplace that are unfair or subtly undermine groups of people. Our values should mean that we feel the imperative to be aware of our behavior and how it may be harming ourselves and others, or holding us back. And our values should mean that we are willing to put in the effort to learn about and adopt more productive patterns of communication and behavior to ensure that every workplace is healthy and supportive of all of its members.

 

Karen Hundert Novick is a senior university administrator who lives in central New Jersey.

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact dani@jofa.org. For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.

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