Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Men and women may not be the same, but we are close

Published 20 March 2014 00:10, Updated 20 March 2014 09:55

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Men and women may not be the same, but we are close

Humans are capable of exhibiting stereotypically male and female behaviour. Photo: Nick Moir

Pointing out the differences between men and women is like a fun parlour game. It keeps us all amused but the problem is that it is taken way too seriously.

We get a laugh when we talk about how men are emotionally mute and send the children off to school half dressed. (It happened. He mistook winter tights for trousers and the school office had to find her a skirt.)

Men bond over tales of women’s gossip and their ignorance of anything mechanical.

But what this stereotyping does is ignore the fact that the variations between men and women’s capabilities are minuscule and most of the behavioural differences can be attributed to culture.

When I was younger, I travelled to Kenya and became fascinated by the Maasai warriors who inverted all my preconceptions about masculine behaviour.

In one sense, the warriors play an extreme he-man role in their society, protecting their people from animals and other tribes, and coming of age when they kill a lion with a spear.

They are highly prized as security guards because they are known to be fearless in the face of death and – having seen one warrior work himself into a fury – I can testify that it was terrifying to observe.

Yet they can be extraordinarily gentle and tender. They can speak softly, spend hours grooming each other’s braids, hold hands when they walk down the street, gossip incessantly and covet each other’s jewellery.

I saw that same fearsome warrior above weep when we had an argument.

‘Trivially’ small difference

We are all capable of exhibiting stereotypically male and female behaviour. I am sure I have met just as many insensitive women as men and just as many empathetic men as women.

But the way we exhibit these traits are coloured by the way we are raised and the cultures we live in.

One of the most authoritative researches into gender differences is Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School, Cordelia Fine, who argues that sex differences in psychological skills are “trivially” small.

“To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the 26 possible comparisons, 11 sex differences were either non-existent or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the ‘right’ sex would be superior less than 53 per cent of the time,” she wrote late last year.

When we consider that there is so much more that unites us than divides us, we get a better understanding of how these stereotypes are holding men and women back and narrowing our options.

Director of research for Catalyst, a global non-profit organisation advancing opportunities for women and business, Aarti Shyamsunder recently wrote about how the managing director of a consulting organisation once turned her down for a job as a coach because she lacked grey hair and a beard.

“I have, at various points in my (still short!) career, been deemed too old for some things and too young for others; too Indian, too American, too rigid, too wishy-washy, too snobby, too humble . . .  I’m now mature enough to understand that all these judgments have probably been true at various points, because I’m a complex person with multiple facets,” she writes.

“But judging me by my age, my skin colour, my accent or my gender is a poor substitute for judging me by my abilities and potential. For a senior professional to advise me that I won’t get very far because my age and gender signal a lack of expertise to many people is merely a perpetuation of the kinds of stereotypes and unconscious biases that hold women and other non-dominant groups back in the workplace.”

Catalyst is launching this week in Australia as Catalyst Australia Women Research and Consulting Limited. It produced the infographic snapshot of women in Australia reproduced below.

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