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Andrea Learned Headshot

The Shifting Power Balance: Is Gender the Issue?

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Gender parity, or lack thereof, is the talk surrounding both the recent Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Catherine Rampell's buzz-generating New York Times article about patterns in layoffs (and how men seem to be feeling the brunt). But, I'm not so sure that is exactly what either discussion is really about. Continuing to strive for a balance of men and women "at the table" or in each industry's work force, seems like a pseudo pursuit. While achieving a 50/50 gender balance in organization or workforce situations is a worthy and seemingly straightforward goal, can we really force that issue? So far, trying to force it has not gotten us far enough, fast enough. Instead, take a closer look and you'll see that gender disparity may well be the issue sounding the alarm, but effectively re-adjusting a workforce or organizational power balance will be more than a gender question.

Take the World Economic Forum: That group has now been put on notice for its longstanding, male-leaning gender representation. While men have been the economic decision-makers for companies and organizations, in general, for ages, now the tradition must evolve (the alarm is sounding!). More of a "woman's influence" is the intention, but the challenge is in how WEF, or any group, goes about it.

Then, there is Rampell's Times article, which leads with the point that the recent spate of layoffs for men in comparison to women is not necessarily about gender equality, but job type. The breakdown of who gets laid off is apparently a "man's job" versus "woman's job" difference, as she writes:

The proportion of women who are working has changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.

While the above may be so, I wonder if men aren't already shifting into more of those traditionally female jobs -- but not, yet, to a statistically significant degree. The idea of better training men and women for workplace power balance challenges brings to mind Harvard's Boris Groysberg's study (pre-recession) of Wall Street analyst "stars" which showed that women, specifically, seem to better prepare themselves for career change for reasons like these: "...star women place greater emphasis than men on external business relationships, and conduct better research on potential employers." In other words, women seem to land on their feet when they change jobs, because they more naturally lay the groundwork for such a situation.

Realizing that now is by no means a time of self-instigated job change, isn't it still worth wondering why -- no matter the type of work -- women may be better at adapting? The answer, again, does not have to be gender-related.

First, ponder what it is about women, specifically, that balances out perspectives and management styles or better prepares them for job changes, large and small. Next, remove the gender-specificity to analyze the most productive work or leadership style. As author Sally Helgesen puts it about the "web of inclusion" in her now-classic book, The Female Advantage, women are "...countering the values of hierarchy with those of the web, which affirms relationships, seeks ways to strengthen human bonds, simplifies communications, and gives means and equal value with ends." Now, ask yourself, are those really women-only behaviors, or are they the way a woman's more typically right-brain guided thinking tends to work, and so, trainable in any employee or organizational participant. I say the latter is the case -- and so, all hope is not lost.

Instead, workplaces and organizations seeking a better power balance might want to evaluate and better educate all involved on how they might use their right-brains more effectively. Many a corporate man and woman could use such a refresher course and the organizational support to succeed, even as our traditionally male-dominated culture undergoes a gender balance transition right before our very eyes.

We can certainly explain away the shifting power balance as a "women's thing," polarizing men to the degree that they get defensive and ignore the opportunities therein. Or, we can put this power shift into non-gendered language, more along the lines of the terms used by Dan Pink in A Whole New Mind: R-directed and L-directed thinking. Knowing that a bit more education in accessing right and left brain processes would lead to better leadership or management skills, wouldn't most people seek it? Just as with any corporate or organizational workforce training, I think so.

For today's organizations, gender disparity does indeed sound the alarm, but we need to look beyond gender in order to re-adjust the power balance effectively -- and for the good of all.