Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Post 4700 Offended/Not Offended

A nurse practitioner  was describing her interaction with the attorney of one of our patients. “I’ve known Dan a long time. We have a good rapport.  He’s an alpha male, so if you just stroke his ego, you can wrap him around your finger and get him to do whatever you want.” The women present at the table – that is, everyone but me – smiled and laughed just a bit. Additional context may be pertinent: she ranks the other females, is older, and presides over them to a certain extent. The man she was speaking about is younger than her as well. A younger woman might be more reluctant to make the statement.

I reflected that a male could not make any similar statement about a female coworker* without getting in big trouble, perhaps even fired. On that basis, it seemed I should be offended by the statement. 

But I’m not. I might be offended if he had been someone I know and like, but the offense taken would be more a product of believing that it was unfair to put him in that category, not that such things should never be said in professional company. Paradoxically, I think that license to insult is a statement of continuing male power**. Punching up is allowed, and it’s a statement of up-ness.

*Males may be able to say such things about other males, females about females, though I think the rules are tricky and the whole thing best avoided. There are also context rules about what you can say at meeting versus what you might say privately to each individual one-on-one.

**Not so complimentary that it was said in my presence though.  Ouch.  As Wally says in “Dilbert,” trying to get out of the line of Alice’s fire on the topic of men having all the power in the company “Those are other men.”

Related: as OT’s, social workers, and nurses are large categories of my co-workers, I am very used to being in largely female environments. Doctors, psychologists, and MHW’s are more 50/50. Having worked more regularly on a geriatric unit this past year has been a bit surprising. The staff is even more predominantly female. The greater intensity of female culture is more than I expected. Looking back, I have been in such situations a few times over my career, where the ratio of females to males around the table is more like 5:1 than 2:1. I have seen very occasional situations where the men slightly outnumbered the women on a team, up to a max of 2:1. I have not been on a team that was consistently 5:1 male. When people are sick or on vacation the coverage might make the table that uneven for a few days, but not more.

Based on that small sample size, I suggest that teams that are 2:1 female are only a bit different from teams that are 50/50 or 2:1 male. It’s noticeable, but not obvious.  The differences in individual personalities rather than category differences are much more meaningful. But a team that is 5:1 female is very different from one that is 2:1. The light conversation is very different, the style of argument and advocacy for one decision over another is different. Things that should be reported are more likely to not be formally acknowledged, but become topics for gossip instead. 

I suspect that teams which are 5:1 male may also be quite different from those that are 2:1.


bs king said...

I've never been able to find the citation, but I was at a conference a few years ago where someone asserted that teams that were most effective when the gender breakdown was no more than 30/70 in either direction.

Having worked both with mostly men and with mostly women, I'd agree that something odd starts to happen when the genders get too lopsided. A few years ago I worked somewhere that, by coincidence, had several female employees resign or retire in a short period of time. The ratio had previously been about 2:1 male to female, and went to the 4 or 5:1 level pretty much overnight. The culture change was pretty noticeable, and since it was all the same employees, it was pretty easy to attribute the change to gender ratio changing. Only time in my life a boss actually admitted he assigned me work based on my gender..."I need to put you in that group to break things up" was the phrase I believe. It got a little dicey.

I don't know if this is an issue in all professions equally, but I do know any manager I know who's ever supervised a lopsided ratio has commented on wanting more of the other gender in. To be fair though, I haven't worked in a profession with a demonstrable reason why one gender might be preferred over the other, so there's that.

Texan99 said...

I spent most of my college and working life in groups that were closer to 5:1 male than 2:1. Towards the end I'd say the ratio was sliding downwards, but if you counted the people with enough power to be alarming if they screwed up or were just in a bad mood, the male-female ratio was higher. But I guess I was used to it, because I find it a more congenial atmosphere than a high female:male ratio, unless the females are very similar to me in education and personality, in which case the female atmosphere is very congenial indeed. Just getting away from the "who's the tallest guy in the room" stuff is a relief.

Sam L. said...

When I was in the service, my career field was exclusively male. Women were said to be in the CinC's "Too Tough To Do" box, but they started coming in after I got away from it.

james said...

I haven't noticed; which might be due to inattention or to the fact that the sex ratios in teams tend to range from 2.5:1 to 5:0. Except for the Italians, but I generally only met them at conferences--they try hard for 1:1. On the basis of that single data point I can't say much, but the Italian women didn't talk much at the meetings, and seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the personalities of a couple of the men. (I didn't talk a lot either.)

One woman ran for CDF spokesman on the platform that, having raised children, she knew how to deal with petty quarrels. That has its appeal, but she lost.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@james - I remember you mentioning that woman.

@T99 - oh, you can say it. I have been at mostly male meetings where I wanted to say "Why don't you guys just unzip and show who's got the biggest wang, and then the rest of us can get on with the real work."

Texan99 said...

I assume that's what it's about, but the nervous laughter and jokes literally focus obsessively on height. And I mean all the time! "We don't all want to go with such-and-such a proposal, but Ken is the tallest guy, ha ha ha, and it's what he's pushing, we don't want to make him mad." It took me a while to get used to it; it's such an alien thought.

Or is that just lawyers?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In psychology everything is code for sex, except sex, which is code for power.

So I'd have to say height is code for penis, but they don't know it.

Texan99 said...

It seems fairly obvious if all people are men. It's just that you have to imagine not being a man, and never making that connection in the first place. If women have a conversational code for sex or sexual prowess or power in conversation among themselves, it's not as direct. Nor I am sure they link sex and power quite as readily, or that they're preoccupied with power in quite the same way. (Obviously I wouldn't claim women don't care about power, but I would say that we approach it differently.)

jaed said...

Men and women seem to work in teams differently.
    BEEP BEEP overgeneralization warning BEEP BEEP proceed at own risk BEEP BEEP
Team-building and team work are advanced social skills, and don't come built in to the basic human model. This being the case, men and women alike look to more primitive social behaviors and repurpose them for this need. The problem is that not everyone uses the same set of social primitives to create team behavior, and this tends to be different for men and women.

Men tend to choose behaviors that are originally derived from aggression and combat, and use competition and challenge as integral parts of team building. Challenging and watching the response gives everyone an idea of what everyone else's strengths and weak points are, and builds confidence from this knowledge, as well as establishing a hierarchy (very important in male group behavior). Competition within the team is tied into the desire for achievement, and competitive mindsets toward other groups also drive work. Defeating the competitor is the mindset here.

Women tend to choose behaviors derived from child-care and child training, and use mentoring and care to build teams. Mentoring establishes a hierarchy (a more female type), caring behaviors reassure the participants and get their guard down, enabling the group to focus on the team's work without distraction. Engulfing or incorporating the competitor is the mindset.

You can see how this create problems if a team has both sexes but is not balanced. A (typical) man in a women-only team will often feel condescended to (and you can see why, since their behavior toward him is a modified version of child-care behavior). He will often go off and sulk because he doesn't think he's being taken seriously. A (typical) woman in a men-only team will often feel attacked (and that's reasonable too, because the challenge behaviors are rooted in aggression, ultimately). She'll question herself about whether she's done anything to "deserve" the "attacks" that started right away. Not finding anything, she'll conclude that she is in fact under attack, probably because she's female, and seek allies. (And you now know what's going on when a new woman on a previously men-only technical team goes complaining to HR about her teammates. And the root cause of a lot of the "ooh tech is soooo sexist" silliness.)

There are ways around this, if you know what's going on. Treating male competition as a sort of extended joke can work surprisingly well - it defuses it emotionally for the woman while letting her "play along".

Texan99 said...

This all rings extremely true for me. I would add that guys most often seem to think about power in terms of dominating, while women are more likely to think of it in terms of the ability to fend off dominance: the sword vs. the fortress.

All-female groups often drive me nuts with their slow, meandering, unfocused search for a consensus. It brings out my inner drill sergeant: I want to impose an agenda and demand either decisions or an abandonment of the activity, anything to keep me from having to sit there for another 90 minutes. I come across as intolerably abrupt. But I never had any trouble working with a group of women lawyers: we didn't have to dominate each other, and we easily cooperated to reach a shared goal. I guess we had to have enough aggression and directed intelligence to have survived there at all, so we ended up with an OK mix of styles to get something done without constantly having pissing matches. The nearly all-male lawyer groups weren't bad, either, if a leader could emerge and impose some kind of order so everyone knew what he needed to peel off and get done. Sadly, that was a bit rare, so male-dominated groups sometimes stagnated into a lot of bristling brows and stalemates. Luckily, they often found a way to bond and cooperate, even though it was a different kind of bonding from what the women did.

I was once being very surprised when a male co-worker confessed his disappointment that none of us women came to see him in the hospital when he had some knee surgery. If he had been a woman, most of us would have visited without thinking, but we all had the strong impression that a guy would take it amiss, as if we were intruding or fussing over him. We liked him very much, so that wasn't it.

David Foster said...

jaed...."Team-building and team work are advanced social skills, and don't come built in to the basic human model"

Very true. The best way to develop them is to observe people who do it well...not necessarily formal "mentors," but just people who know how to get it done without unnecessary breaking of china. I don't think the role models necessarily have to be of the same sex as oneself, either, though obviously there will be some stylistic differences.

A lot of companies are pretty close to a state of organizational chaos these days, in part due to constant acquisitions and spinoffs, but also due to badly-thought-out "de-hierarchicalisation" and "flattening" by people who don't do a coherent job of organization design. In these environments, the ability to navigate complex and ambiguous social structures is at a premium. In general, on the average, women are probably better at this than men.

ymarsakar said...

Sounds like a totalitarian theocracy