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Lead Your Team Managing

Engaging Women at Work Starts with Addressing Gender

Engaging Women at Work Starts with Addressing Gender
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Women have come a long way in the business world. Every day, women are rising to leadership positions, breaking into male-dominated fields, and launching their own companies. But because men have been in the corporate workforce so much longer than women, "male" has remained the default setting for workplace norms, and public radio journalist Ashley Milne-Tyte believes that this paradigm affects female professionals more than they realize.

"Women can sabotage [themselves] at work without realizing it, because workplace norms are male norms," said Milne-Tyte, founder and host of The Broad Experience, a podcast about women and workplace issues. "Yet we've been brought up to be more polite, 'nice,' and deferential than men. Offices are full of politics and often we're not well equipped to deal with that. Too many women still believe all we have to do is work hard and we'll be recognized. It's not true."

While outright discrimination based on an employee's sex has been illegal since the 1960s, there are many challenges that women still face in the workplace, regardless of industry. One of the most widespread and potentially detrimental issues women have to deal with is unconscious sex-based bias. [5 Challenges Women Entrepreneurs Face (and How to Overcome Them)]

"Both men and women have deeply ingrained mindsets about what women 'should' be, what we're capable of and how we'll react in certain situations," Milne-Tyte told Business News Daily. "Women sometimes miss out on opportunities because men assume we're not cut out for the role. A boss might make assumptions about what your role at work should be after you have a child. Another might not see you as leadership material because you're short or have a high voice. This isn't overt discrimination, but it's still damaging."

A prime example of unconscious bias in the workplace is the way male managers approach feedback with female colleagues and employees. When it comes to giving honest feedback, men will be upfront and perhaps even a little rude to other men, but they assume a woman will react poorly if given the same candid commentary, Milne-Tyte said. A man will sugarcoat or even leave out constructive criticisms, so women don't get the information they need from their male bosses to improve and get ahead.

It's obvious that something needs to change, but it's not that men and women need to view and treat each other as if they're exactly the same. In fact, it's quite the opposite — Milne-Tyte said that real change will begin when people understand where each sex is coming from, and respect and work with those differences.

"Pretending we're the same does women no favors," she said. "Nothing will change for the better until more men can see the workplace through women's eyes. And that will only happen with a lot of honest discussion, leading to a better understanding of how different men and women are thanks to cultural influences as well as neurobiology."

One important but simple action male leaders can take to engage and connect with female colleagues is talking and listening to them about their experiences in the workplace.

"Too often the topic of women's progress at work, or lack thereof, is discussed solely among women," Milne-Tyte said. "Yet who's in most positions of power? Men. A lot of men seem to think this is just a women's issue. They put women's stalled progress down to personal choices. Others are interested in the discussion, but feel awkward about joining in, [or are]afraid of 'saying the wrong thing' and somehow causing offense."

Women need to feel that their point of view is heard and considered at work, and this doesn't always happen in a male-led workplace. Shifting the cultural environment to a more open one that allows women to express their thoughts about difficult topics can help to improve the situation, Milne-Tyte said.

"Until more of us learn to understand and appreciate these differences [between men and women], the workplace will remain a tougher environment for women."

Originally published on Business News Daily

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.