Gender Partnership: Beyond Equality and Equity
Equality, Equity, and Partnership
EQUALITY: The state of being equal in rights, treatment, quantity, or value to all others in a specific group.
EQUITY: Actions, treatment of others, or a general condition characterized by justice, fairness, and impartiality.
PARTNERSHIP: Cooperation between people or groups working together toward a common goal.
From its inception, the conversation about how women are treated in the workplace has centered on equality – equal pay for equal work, equal treatment, and so on. More recently, while equality continues to be an issue, we have seen an added concern for equity – fairness, consideration, respect. Very lately, some companies have begun to appreciate the possibility and opportunity that gender partnership can provide.
Research has shown that companies with a higher proportion of women in senior management and leadership positions are on average 48 percent more profitable and show a 37 percent higher return on equity than companies with fewer senior women. Closer scrutiny reveals that among companies with more women in senior positions, the most successful have taken on changing not only the quantity of women in relation to men, but the quality of the relationship between them, starting at senior levels and extending throughout the organization.
The most important quality of that relationship is a higher partnership that goes beyond cooperation and common goals. True gender partnership yields a synergy wherein what is created and produced by executives in these organizations is far greater than the sum of the talents that individual men and women bring to the table.
To understand the power of Gender Partnership, we have to kill the assumption that equality and equity – that is, equal treatment, equal rights, fairness, and impartiality — mean treating people as if they were all the same. This is particularly true in the realm of gender, where the innate differences between men and women are often striking.
Recent neurobiological research has shown that much of the folk wisdom about how men and women differ is, in fact, based on real differences in their brains and the way they react to events and other stimuli. (Of course these are generalizations – a given individual may be more or less like to have the characteristics we’ll look at below.)
Men’s and women’s brains have evolved very differently. At the risk of over-simplifying, we can say that men’s brains are more specialized, with much of their brain activity occurring in the areas of the left hemisphere where skills used for hunting and fighting are located. These skills include visual-spatial talents and the ability to single-mindedly focus on the task at hand. Women, by contrast, have much more “balanced” brain patterns, with talents distributed over larger areas and across both hemispheres. In addition, the language areas of women’s brains are more developed, and more of the female brain is devoted to language. Thus even men who have strong language skills tend to speak less and be very narrowly focused, while women with their multiple-focus brains will notice and think about more things, especially more details.
Here are some examples of these differences (bear in mind that these are generalizations based on averages and do not apply across the board to any individual man or woman):
- Human relationships: Women communicate differently than men, focusing on mutually workable solutions, utilizing non-verbal cues, and showing greater empathy. Men tend to be more task-oriented in their communication, talk less, and prefer working in isolation.
- Brain hemispheres: Men tend to process better in the left hemisphere of the brain (emphasizing logical, analytical, and objective skills), while women tend to process equally well in both hemispheres. Thus men tend to approach problem-solving from a linear, task-oriented perspective, while women typically solve problems less linearly and are more aware of feelings when communicating.
- Reaction to stress: “Fight or flight” is commonly considered the normal response to stress, but — as with many other behaviors — what is considered normal is, in fact, the male response. By contrast, women tend to approach stressful situations with a “tend and befriend” response. These differing reactions to stress are rooted in hormones. Everyone experiences the release of the hormone oxytocin (the “nurturing hormone during stress. However, women’s higher estrogen levels potentiate the effects of oxytocin while men’s higher testosterone levels reduce these effects. Thus in a conflict situation, women in a business setting will be more likely to seek common ground and alignment rather than engage in a “who’s right” debate; this is likely to lead to more creative solutions and greater buy-in going forward. [NICELY PUT!]
- Language: Two sections of the brain responsible for language were found to be larger in women than in men, supporting the view that women are more effective communicators. In addition, Men typically only process language in their dominant hemisphere, whereas women process language in both hemispheres.
- Emotion: The deep limbic system, which is involved in emotion, is typically more developed in women than in men, which allows them to be more in touch with and expressive of their feelings, which promotes bonding with others.
- Pain: Men and women perceive pain differently. Women are generally more resistant to pain medication, including morphine, and are more likely to vocalize and seek treatment for their pain. Researchers have discovered that in men the right amygdala is activated during pain, while in women it is the left amygdala. The right amygdala has more connections with areas of the brain that control external functions, while the left amygdala is more connected to internal functions. This may explain why women perceive pain more intensely than men. More importantly in the business setting, it means that even under extreme stress, women will tend more to look inward for solutions rather than to strike out or compete.
Based on these and other gender-related differences, it is clear that men and women bring very different and often complementary talents to the workplace. Any system of supposed gender equity or gender equality that ignores these differences is unlikely to succeed — and will cost the organization the possibility of maximizing the contribution of every individual.
If a company is determined to maximize those contributions, then equity and equality are necessary but not sufficient. What is needed is Gender Partnership. For purposes of this paper, I want to go beyond the dictionary definition of partnership. I propose to define partnership as follows:
Partnership occurs when a gender-balanced group of men and women share a common vision and a common set of values with a commitment to maximizing the skills, innate talents, and synergy of the group.
To elaborate on this proposition we need to reference two important books, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and Drive by Dan Pink . In the first, Surowiecki does a thorough job of documenting the validity of the folk wisdom that “all of us is smarter than any of us.” His work shows that a group, under the right conditions, will always produce solutions to problems that are better – smarter, more creative, more executable – than would have been produced by its smartest members working on their own.
The right conditions include:
- Diversity of opinion Each person brings their own information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
- Diversity of experience & expertise The group includes novices as well as experts, rookies as well as veterans.
- Independence People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
- Decentralization People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
- Aggregation Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.
In Drive, Dan Pink takes on the question of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. He argues convincingly that when a person’s financial survival needs are not at stake, external motivators such as money become at best irrelevant and at worst de-motivators. More importantly for our purposes, he shows that the most effective intrinsic motivators are purpose, mastery, and autonomy. When people have a shared sense of purpose, are given opportunities to learn and master skills and ideas, and are allowed a high degree of self-management, they are more productive, more innovative, and happier than when these three factors are not present.
To return to my proposed definition of partnership, it seems clear from Surowiecki and Pink’s arguments and from the neurobiological data that gender partnership will maximize the value-add that each gender brings to the workplace and is more likely to yield high performance than any approach that simply aims for “equality,” ignoring valuable gender differences in favor of the “we’re all the same” approach.
One last note on Gender Partnership: It should be obvious that after thousands of years of male dominance in societies that valued strength and specialization over feeling and generalization, the movement for Gender Partnership is not taking off from a standing start. In the early years of feminism, both men and women tended to see that struggle as the property of women. When the fight in the workplace was for equity and equality, this was a valuable approach as partnership was not even possible until women empowered themselves.
But if the fight is for gender partnership, men will need to step up and lead — not instead of women but alongside them. History has shown that in struggles of this kind, the ruling class has stayed in power due to the actions of the few who are determined to hold onto their power and the in action of the many who are unconscious, apathetic, or unaware of the cost at which their hegemony is bought. It is only when leaders emerge among the ruling class (in this case, men) to partner with the leaders of the disenfranchised (in this case, women) that real progress is made.