Entrepreneur

11 observations on workplace gender wars

(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This column is an abbreviated version of a post that originally appeared on his blog.)

My two daughters are now in college and have put their toes in the working world with summer jobs. As they’ve grown older, they’ve heard their parent’s advice about women in the workforce.

This post is not advice. Nor is it a recommendation of what you should do. It’s simply my interpretation of what I have observed. Our circumstances were unique, times have changed, and your conclusions and opinions will most certainly differ.

When my girls were younger and started to play soccer, I used to remind them, “Make sure the people on the field aren’t carrying sticks – because if they’re playing field hockey while you’re playing soccer, you’re going to get hurt.”

As they got older, they understood I wasn’t only talking about sports but that I was trying to teach them how to figure out the rules of any game they were about to play – and that included the workplace.

My advice to our daughters about women in the workplace has been pretty simple:

  • The language of business is about winners and losers. Bosses who read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” as a guide to business strategy or “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” are unlikely to create a culture of collaboration.
  • There are implicit rules of competition and collaboration in companies.  It’s not that anyone is hiding a secret rulebook; it’s just that no one has articulated the rules.
  • In most companies, men set these rules. Again, nothing secret here, but men don’t realize that they behave and think differently. They don’t have to explain the rules to other men, so it never occurs to them to explain the rules to women.
  • As women, they will be expected to perform to boy’s rules as defined in their workplace: This means they need to spend the time understanding what the rules are in their company and industry. If they don’t, they will find others who are less competent but more adept at playing the game getting promoted instead of them.
  • Women can be equally competitive if they desire. It’s not a question of competency, or a skill only boys have. If they want to succeed by competing, they can. They just have to learn the rules and practice them.
  • Find mentors then become one. In every organization or industry there’s someone who’s figured out the rules. Seek them out and know what they know. By the time you do, it’s your turn to mentor someone else.
  • Collaboration can make you a stronger competitor. The irony is that organizations that collaborate are more effective competitors. When they reach a position of authority, use their instincts to build a fearsome organization/company.
  • If they prefer to collaborate and don’t want to play by boy’s rules, they need to understand what their career choices are. There are plenty of other ways to be a productive member of society other than a position on a corporate org chart.
  • Understanding the rules and career options doesn’t mean the rules are right or they have to accept them as the only career choices.  They can make change happen if they so desire. But they need to understand the personal costs of doing so.
  • Some find the idea of gender differences uncomfortable. Having fought to have men and women be treated equally, discovering that there may be gender specific hard-wiring for behavior sets up cognitive dissonance. Some simply won’t accept that there are workplace gender differences.
  • I may be wrong. Perhaps I misunderstood what I’ve seen or that time has changed the workplace significantly. Take this advice as a working hypothesis and see if it matches your experience.

Time will tell whether we gave our daughters good advice.



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