If Men Are From Mars, How Will Women Ever Get Promoted?

Business woman

Survey of female executives finds gender bias in Corporate America.

The best-selling book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is all about the male-female relationship. Using humor, author John Grey makes a very important point: men and women think differently. Sometimes the difference is so pronounced, one would think men and women come from different planets.

The socialization process, or how we raise boys and girls to become adults, is not the same for men and women. Boys and girls are taught differently, are exposed to unique male-female experiences and are treated dissimilarly by their adult role models.

For example, social researchers claim that educational environments traditionally do little to help girls feel capable of a career in science, while encouraging boys to study mathematics. Experiences at home reinforce rather than correct the socialization process at school. Added up over the first two decades of life, women emerge from childhood with a different outlook on life, family and career than men.

Grey believes the socialization process for men and women is one reason they often fail to connect with their inter-gender communications. While Grey's examples are often humorous, these misconnected communications can leave one gender wondering why the other "just doesn't get it." On a more serious side, Grey, who is a professional marriage counselor, believes these misconnections, if left unchecked, can harm the relationship and trust between a man and a woman.

Grey's observations have implications for the workplace. In a study of executive men and women, the Harwich Group found significant differences in the perspectives men and women have towards female corporate leaders. Nine of every ten women cited continued gender barriers towards their advancement where the majority of men saw little, if any, issue for concern. Is this socialization or discrimination?

Existing national statistics support a view that corporate America is not a gender-balanced playing field:

  • Women make up half the U.S. workforce but account for less than 4 percent of the nation's top executives.
  • Despite awarding 54 percent of graduate and undergraduate degrees to women, a female manager can expect to earn 68 percent of a male manager.
  • Three of every four women report having been sexually harassed during their educational or professional career.
  • Women managers are clustered into administrative and support functions. They are more likely to support a "decision maker" than be a "decision maker."

Narrative comments from participants in the Harwich Study provide further evidence that working men and women view corporate America from very different perspectives. While men, as a whole, do not see gender bias as a serious company problem, female executives are left angered and mistrustful of their organizations because of their treatment in the office.

Supporting attitude as expressed by survey participants

Female professionals are as serious about their careers as men and resent the suggestion that they are less committed than their male counterparts. "Men still believe women lack what it takes to lead. They think we are committed first to being a mom or a wife -- they don't take us seriously."

Female professionals express a high level of frustration and disdain for senior male management. "The men who run my company lack the courage to lead on the issue of diversity. I was actually told they weren't sure how clients would react to a female black attorney. I was a successful fifteen-year attorney at the time."

The more experienced a women professional is the more likely she feels impacted by gender discrimination. "When I started my career I never felt like a victim of discrimination, but as I get older I see how the many small subtle differences add up. I'm happy with my life, but it saddens me to think where my professional career might have been if I were a man."

Although female and male professionals agree that the playing field is not level in terms of opportunity and compensation, men are significantly less concerned about correcting gender inequity than women. "The women in my company are just as capable as the men, we just aren't paid that way."

Females express unfairness over a double-standard between men and women in the workplace. "Nice men are 'great guys' with super career futures but being 'nice' as a woman means you're not tough enough for the next job."

Females strongly resent having to modify their behaviors to fit into a man's way of thinking. "Being friendly gets confused by men in the workplace as flirting. Even though I work in a professional office environment -- not an after-hours tavern -- I had to stop being friendly because the men couldn't tell the difference. I'm a happily married working mom with two children. It's childish."

Policy implications for business

Not selecting the best person for the job makes little business sense. Likewise, allowing any artificial barriers in the recruitment, assessment, development and promotion of professional talent leaves an organization with less than the best, to say nothing of the illegality of such practice. Here are a few suggestions that women executives feel need to be done within corporate America:

  • Show visible senior leadership on the issue of gender diversity. Leadership must be more than simple lip service. Link executive pay to the advancement of the best people. Set consequences for inappropriate behaviors.
  • Examine internal human resource policies and processes to identify artificial barriers of cultural and gender bias. Replace the old boy network with specific performance objectives, executive assessment centers, and benchmarking against successful organizations.
  • Audit human resource results to ensure gender-free human resource processes. Women do not want quotas or token placements but believe the objective monitoring of results will identify artificial barriers to the advancement of the best people.
  • Educate senior leadership. Female executives in the study did not believe gender bias was a conscious decision. Rather, they viewed it more as a socialization and cultural misconnect. Gender education, training, and the placement of a number of key women in business-critical assignments would open the eyes of senior management.
  • Continue to support flexible working arrangements and family-friendly work environments. Until society changes its views on women's responsibility to family, companies who promote on the basis of face-time at the office will not advance its best people.
  • Set short- and long-term developmental goals supported by well thought-out management training, assignment to visible projects, executive mentoring, and exposure of female talent to senior leadership.
  • Promote and publicize your successes. This not only sends a vital signal to the organization, it becomes a competitive advantage in the retention and recruitment of the best talent.

Men may very well be from Mars but that does not mean women must be relegated to a career as corporate note-taker. For an organization to effectively compete, it needs all the talent it can get. Artificial barriers to advancement not only keep the best person out of a job, but promote someone less than the best.

Tom Murphy is an employment lawyer and president of the Harwich Group. During his twenty-two years experience in human resources, he has provided management advice on gender bias to Fortune 500 companies such as Ingersoll-Rand, Dresser Industries, T.J. Lipton, Union Camp Paper and Automatic Data Processing. He has been a professor of employment law and currently consults with Rutgers University's Graduate School of Workplace Studies. In addition to his professional career, Tom is a member of the Morris School District Board of Education, a fellow of New Jersey Leadership and is on the Board of Hands Across Morris. He is a former trustee of Warren County Community College Foundation, was founding chair of the Warren County Human Relations Commission and co-chaired the New Jersey Department of Education?s Cross Content Core Curriculum Content Standards. Tom and his wife Sharon, a female executive, reside in Morris Township, New Jersey with their two sons.