How to talk about gender without stepping on landmines

Does the idea of talking about gender differences strike fear in your heart? Is your company considering diversity and inclusion training? Have you seen these initiatives go horribly wrong?  I have.

If you talk about gender differences, chances are excellent someone is going to be offended. Believe me, I know.  I’ve been doing seminars and training on gender differences for over 15 years. And I can tell you even I have made mistakes.

With today’s highly charged political climate, it can be trickier than ever to talk about gender. This is a problem because smart companies know they need to address issues of diversity and inclusion. Gender is a big part of that initiative.

So how can you talk about gender without stepping on landmines?  Here are a few ideas about where the landmines are and what to do instead.

Landmine #1 – Stereotyping

Not all men think and act the same way. Not all women think and act the same way.  No one wants to be lumped into a bucket.  Stereotypes get us into all kinds of trouble.

Here are three pieces of advice about stereotyping.

One, if you talk about gender differences, talk about “generalities” but make a point that these differences don’t apply to everyone. Acknowledge that your audience may feel these generalities don’t apply to them at all.

Two, stress that you should never make assumptions based solely on someone’s gender. In my training on selling financial services to women, I make a point to talk about 4 different money personality types. Women come at financial decisions from a wide variety of angles.  If you make an assumption about her, there’s an excellent chance you’ll get it wrong.

Three, instead of applying stereotypes, challenge stereotypes. For example, I am constantly tackling the stereotype that women are risk averse.  In my research, I’ve found that women are simply more risk aware. They will absolutely take on risk. The only difference is that they may want more information before taking on that risk.

Landmine #2 – Labeling specific traits feminine and masculine

This follows directly on the problems with stereotyping.  When you take a specific trait like “compassion” or “assertiveness” and label it male or female, you are asking for trouble.  Any trait that is considered a negative trait is going to offend people.

Focus instead on research about perceptions of gender.  When I work with organizations, we look at “perceptions” about women’s behavior that may or may not be accurate.

For example, men are sometimes “perceived” to be more decisive.  We look at the factors that could be driving that perception and address ways to overcome this often erroneous perception.

How we perceive the different genders also drives our expectations of their behaviors, wants and needs.

Landmine #3 – Focusing too much on gender differences, vs. gender expectations

Are there differences between men and women?  Yup. There sure are. There are brain differences, communication style differences, decision making style differences. I’ve written extensively about these differences. In hindsight, perhaps too extensively.

I, too, have been guilty of falling into the stereotype trap.

Instead of focusing too much on specific gender differences, focus on expectations based on gender. Even well-meaning managers make mistakes based on what they think each gender needs.

For example, when men and women start a family, they are often treated differently.  Research shows that mothers are often expected, indeed encouraged, to ratchet back at work. They are rerouted into less taxing roles and given less “demanding” (read: lower-status, less career-enhancing) clients.

Yet, not all mothers wanted to ratchet back their work. While fathers are offered some flexibility, it is not assumed they want less taxing roles.

Landmine #4 –  Making “fix the women” the solution 

There has been a lot of push back against the “lean in” line of thinking.

Well-meaning but largely ineffective efforts focus on “fixing” women or accommodating them.  These efforts don’t address the systemic behaviors that cause the bias in the first place.

I talked with a woman whose firm wanted to attract more female financial advisors. The firm’s (male) owner didn’t understand why their efforts weren’t working.  He stated, “We let women have very flexible work schedules.  That’s what women want!”

The woman replied, “What women want is to know they can be successful working here.”

She laid out a real truth bomb there.  Instead of spending all your time talking about work/life balance, talk about:

  • What systemic processes are in place to overcome bias?
  • How do you provide authentic, open feedback on a regular basis so people always know where they stand?
  • What criteria do you use to measure success and make promotion/advancement decisions?
  • What diversity/inclusion plans do you have in place to help your employees achieve success?

P.S. – if you’re looking for a different way to approach unconscious bias, try focusing on people’s blind spots.  We all have a disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us, and it’s hurting our credibility.

Holly Buchanan

Holly Buchanan

Holly Buchanan is the author of Selling Financial Services to Women – What Men Need to Know and Even Women Will Be Surprised to Learn. She is the co-author of The ... Web: Details