Lesson from Monster.com on Application of Gender Stereotypes

// 18 December 2007

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Monster are a web-based careers service where users can upload their CVs for employers to view, browse jobs and access general careers advice. Unfortunately, it seems they also offer a lesson in how to apply gender stereotypes in the workplace. This matter is tackled in an article called “Managing the other Sex”. Here, the “light-hearted” notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus is jovially taken as a given that barely needs to be justified (why we needed to read a book to figure this out is, apparently, “rather baffling”). The piece drives home its point that men and women are irrefutably different in the way they communicate through generalisations such as “Men will rarely call another man just to have a chin-wag” (the writer obviously hasn’t met my boyfriend) and observations like “men typically refuse to accept that they may be lost because they don’t want to show any signs of weakness.” There is no suggestion that the latter may be so because men are socially expected to be more masterful than women. Indeed, the implication seems to be that this is just another case of “how men are.”

The piece predictably excuses its heavy reliance on clichés with tired phrases such as “pushing political correctness aside…” and “it is dangerous to generalise, but…” Yes, readers, it’s dangerous to generalise but the writer still cheerfully goes ahead and does it…

According to this article, several surveys (it doesn’t say which ones) have found that, on average, male bosses are preferred by 77% of women and 60% of men. I suppose one could argue that this itself is not surprising because the public sphere of work has traditionally been framed as a male domain and that has left a legacy that continues to make the archetypal male boss a more familiar choice for many. However, the quoted statistic is potentially far more worrying than Monster would blithely have us believe. After all, if the majority really do have such a preference, surely women will inevitably be held back from managerial positions or not do as well within them as they would in a less prejudiced environment?

A study showing that people generally prefer white, straight or able-bodied bosses would quite rightly provoke concern. Why is the revelation that people tend to prefer one gender to be in authority any less controversial?

Later in the article, it is claimed that “female bosses will tend to focus more on identifying and praising the positive aspects of a person’s work.” In the context of an article that seems to have no problem with people apparently preferring male bosses, one could be left with the lingering impression that this is being presented as a weakness. However, in a well-known book about how to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie says that beginning with “praise and honest appreciation” and calling attention to people’s mistakes indirectly is an important aspect of good leadership. I’m sure Monster readers could think of plenty of men, as well as women, who lead in this way. I wonder how the article would frame their behaviour?

Interestingly, the writer takes a contradictory turn towards the end when he suddenly says “men and women are more alike than different…” This is particularly confusing because, if he really believes this is true, why has he dedicated a whole article to reinforcing the opposite idea? I guess we’ll never know because these precise differences are left ambiguous and the tone swiftly switches back into Mars vs Venus mode:

…and if each sex recognises the overriding fact that we both think differently then communication difficulties become remedial.

Mind bogglingly, this paradox implies that, despite awareness of similarities, we ought to have faith in the idea that the other sex is thinking differently. This, in my view, is a pretty poor strategy for effective communication because it potentially alienates individuals from the outset and provides fertile breeding ground for lazy and limiting assumptions based on a person’s gender (for example, not giving a man the opportunity to ask questions, if the article’s assumptions about male communication style are to be taken as gospel). Rather than aid communication, such reliance on clichés just gives us a ready excuse to dismiss issues out of hand. It also stifles our ability to read nuances within individuals.

Not that Monster see it that way. They reckon “understanding the opposite sex from either a management or employee point of view” will go a long way towards “bridging the gender gap in the workplace.” So there it is, readers. It doesn’t matter where you figure in your organisation. You too can help bridge the gender gap in the workplace by embracing gender stereotypes!

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