Blog by Richard Chapman- Harris, Opportunity Now Diversity Advisor
On my reading travels I have encountered many studies and research reports which tell me that women are better communicators than men. Some qualify their assertions by highlighting that women use many more words than men (from 10,000 to 20,000 words a day to a man’s 5,000 to 10,000). Others importantly recognise the role of listening in two way communication; where I am again told that I am not as good as my female siblings, friends or colleagues – but is that right? Is it that women are better when it comes to communication? Or is it that men and women can communicate differently? Or is the message more inclusive than that?
If I was the obedient type (which I probably won’t be - I’m told - as a boy) this article will be short, succinct and emotionless. I will reference modern neuroscience with a dash of personal / professional sensitivity to explore if men and women occupy different realms. Indeed the narrow gender binary (limited in its diversity) even positions men and women as metaphorical aliens from different planets.
We all know the stereotypes and assumptions about boys and girls - it is institutionally reinforced by the toys that are produced, how lessons are taught, in the academic choices that young people make and even into the adult realm of work and sexual politics. But alongside purely socialised beliefs, there is some evidence to render this discussion more than a perpetuation of attitudes. “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine suggests that despite the average male brain being 10% larger, females have more than 10% more brain cells than males in the planum temporal. More and highly efficient communication in this part of the brain allows women to perceive and process language in more sophisticated ways. More broadly, in scientific terms, male and female brains are different. But then brains are different - my brain and the brain of the female colleague sat next to me are also different, as is mine from the male sat opposite.
Thinking about work, how do we talk about gender in the office? We know the Equality Act 2010 ensures we do not discriminate based on gender but it is also important that we do not shy away from helpful discussions around our differences and similarities. Indeed, research shows that far from an egalitarian white wash, men and women are often different, function differently and perform differently both between and amongst themselves - but this does not mean one is better or worse, or that one should be rewarded and the other not!
In a blog on Ready to Manage there are tips on how to communicate better between the genders based on some very generalized adjectives. Men are suggested as ‘Businesslike’ and ‘Simple/Short’ while women at work are described as ‘Diplomatic’ and ‘Complex/Long.’ Although these generalisations are labeled as such I do not see a huge amount of value in making them. What would be more useful may be to reinforce the value of understanding your workplace culture and communicate in a style which reflects the organisation (where positive to do so). This cultural awareness and adaptation of personal style for an effective outcome is a more effective use of time that pondering if my style is too female or how to talk to the ‘blokey’ guy in HR (but I would say that, right?) Reading further into the offered adjectives, a common male workplace communication style is ‘concise’ while a females is ‘sociable’ which for me undermines the availability of socialising opportunities for males whilst labeling females ‘wafflers.’ This is where the discussion quickly moves from exploratory to prejudicial.
John Grays’s 2009 book, “ Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” is a hugely popular example of common gender notions being perpetuated for gratuitous purposes. Whether at home or in the workplace some of men’s needs are suggested as appreciation, approval and encouragement which are seen to be met by short communications in both directions but the female desires caring, understanding and reassurance which require longer, more involved communication. If we extract this and apply it as standard then we will have unfulfilled men and women forced into communications which do not recognise their individuality. So, as an individual – how do you talk about gender?