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Gender Dynamics in the Workplace

Mar 24, 2023
Gender in organizations expert, Professor Kennedy, investigates how women can retain femininity while recognizing its worth and power

By Lacie Blankenship

Jessica A. Kennedy, Associate Professor of Management, is an expert on gender in work organizations; she is known for her research at the intersection of gender, business, ethics, and power. Examples of Kennedy’s recent contributions include a new study showing that subordinate men are more likely to engage in sexually harassing behaviors, busting the myth that women are bad negotiators, and shedding light on the unique advantages women bring into negotiations. 

Vanderbilt Professor Jessica Kennedy

Professor Kennedy

In this article, Kennedy answers our questions on gender dynamics and how they are present in the workplace.

What are gender dynamics? 

Gender is the socially constructed meaning of biological sex. It’s one thing to be male or female, but another to create specific meanings out of biological differences. When our beliefs, expectations, and reactions to a person reflect patterns elicited by gender rather than something specific to the individual and his/her situation, the interpersonal interaction is informed by gender dynamics. For instance, when a man and a woman act identically assertive, but she is seen as less likable than he is, this is a gender dynamic. Or, when a man but not a woman elicits disgust for being a stay-at-home parent, this is a gender dynamic. Typically, gender dynamics refer to people treating men and women differently in ways that affect their power, status, and authority.

How do gender dynamics present in the workplace? 

Organizations are intended to be highly rational places focused on completing tasks and achieving goals, with the most task- and socially-competent people in charge because it benefits the group. However, when we introduce gender dynamics, it’s a form of irrationality. Women might have a harder time achieving equal pay and authority despite displaying equal skill because gender dynamics distort people’s views of women’s skill and behavior. That pattern has been the focus of most research to date. However, it’s important to note that most of the things that are bad for women are also bad for men. Notions of masculinity have burdened men with a lot of financial pressure and very limited emotional permissions, in essence limiting their humanity and constricting their life opportunities in different ways. 

What should workplace leaders consider about gender dynamics? 

Leaders drive culture by letting people know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, so step one is making clear that the organization won’t tolerate disparate treatment of men and women at work. Generally, more formal, professional environments are better for women than informal ones. Educating people on what typical gendered expectations look like and what to do when they crop up is helpful too. When gender dynamics emerge, people typically think they are just reacting to the person; they don’t realize that gender informs their reaction, and that’s where knowing the research can help. If you know that women are punished more harshly for small errors, then you can watch for that, or if you know that women are more likely to be criticized when they are task- rather than relationship-focused, then you can call out that pattern and try to consciously correct if it comes up in a group discussion. I also think it’s worth noting that creating equal opportunity for people of identical talents has historically been a bipartisan goal. Too often in today’s polarized environment, DEI issues are seen as liberal concerns. But to have a stable society, we need to establish upward mobility and equal opportunity. Otherwise, hierarchies become oppressive and unstable.    

How do you expect workplace gender dynamics to change in the next 5 years? 

Gender categories are expanding, and the theories will have to expand to accommodate the new categories. We don’t know a lot yet about what it means to be, say, non-binary. I think having people whose gender is more fluid and difficult to pin down will help to disrupt antiquated expectations. However, I’m not sure we have resolved the issue of femininity being devalued generally and in the workplace particularly, and I think more has to be discussed and done to eliminate that pattern. I think that Kate Manne’s work is insightful about the ways that women are expected to be like The Giving Tree in Shel Silverstein’s book, giving until they are a stump, so I plan to keep investigating how we can retain femininity while recognizing its worth and power.

What advice do you have for people facing gender dynamics in their workplace? 

I would recommend speaking up in a rational, curious, moderate way about what you see and what you need. For instance, if your review contained comments you thought were gendered, say so, in a respectful way, like, “When you said I am good with clients but not that technical, I was surprised because I did X, Y, and Z on the technical side this year.” Or if someone isn’t using your title, say, “I notice that you call Dr. X by his title but me by my first name. Why is that? I would prefer to go by my title too.” Don’t just sit and stew on the unfairness or vent to third parties. It’s great if a friend or mentor can speak up about the issue too, but we need to practice having difficult conversations and giving people the chance to learn from our perspectives. Retaining our voice can help maintain a sense of agency. Suffering in silence is the worst and will burn you out. Acknowledging the fear and anxiety caused by any historical experiences where we were treated unfairly can help keep the emotion levels moderate. We want to react to this situation, not the sum of all our past experiences with the issue. That’s our responsibility, and why speaking up sooner is better. Yes, it feels risky, but that’s what genuine relationships require.  

Speaking up with specific suggestions about how to change structures before issues arise is a great idea too. We can suggest solutions like asking all the job candidates identical questions in identical order, removing names from the resumes, or buying software to review for pay disparities. One meta-analysis found that the gender pay and promotion disparity across situations was 14x larger than the performance disparity, so reward pay is really an issue.  

When you face really overt bias, not just more subtle, unintended bias, then I say that it’s like an abusive relationship – don’t try to fix them; get yourself out, and take care to heal yourself by correcting false, negative beliefs about yourself that they might have instilled. I think it’s best to assume good intentions where you can, but when you have clear evidence to the contrary, don’t wait around letting discrimination sap your motivation. Move on before the situation gets too damaging.

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