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The changing face of gender issues in the 21st century workplace.

AT & T employee Burke Stinson got caught using his office computer to exchange affectionate e-mails with a woman co-worker.


After being questioned separately, the two offenders were allowed to keep their jobs but were officially reprimanded. Because Burke initiated the intimate exchange, management placed a memo in his file noting this unacceptable behavior.

Burke and his paramour are married--to each other. So are 3,500 other AT & T employees. (1)

Before 1940, industrial and corporate workplaces were male strongholds that only a few women had penetrated. Men whose wives "had to work" were deemed failures as "providers."

If a woman worked outside the home, she was likely a secretary, a teacher, a nurse or a librarian. (Nurses in hospitals, almost all women, were "the doctor's handmaidens" working in "the doctor's workshop.")

Then came World War II, the flood of female employees into the brand new Pentagon building, women in the military, and Rosie the Riveter. (2) In 1943, a list of "Tips on Getting More Efficiency Out of Women Employees" was published in Mass Transporation magazine. The tips include:

* Pick young married women. They're less likely to be flirtatious, and they need the work or they wouldn't be doing it.

* Obtain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination, one covering female conditions. This will reveal whether the employee-to-be has any female weaknesses that would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job.

* Be tactful when issuing instructions or making criticisms. Women can't shrug off harsh words the way men do.

* Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You may have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day. (3)

Women and men both have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go. There must be no letup in dealing promptly and effectively with instances of sexual harassment and other types of sex discrimination in today's integrated workplaces.

However, now we should also learn to rub our stomachs and pat our heads at the same time. Workplace productivity and personal peace of mind depend on establishing a positive, bisexual dialogue about old and new issues important to women and to men. That dialogue has already begun. (4)

The role of ethics

At first, it might seem far-fetched to suggest that the Vice President of Medical Affairs should become a catalyst for such productive interactions in health care systems' corporate offices and hospitals. However, if the VPMA has responsibilities related to the system or hospital ethics committee, then the suggestion is not far fetched at all.

The expanded agenda of ethics committees should include all three components of today's health care ethics. Those components are traditional medical ethics issues, issues in biomedical ethics and the rapidly growing field of organizational ethics in health care. (5)

In addition to Enron-inspired issues, organizational ethics issues include such matters as honesty in advertising, rights for registered partners and the employee's right to privacy vs. the company's right to know how office computers are used.

Consider these starting points for mixed group discussions of gender issues in both formal and informal settings.

Gender and sex are both about maleness and femaleness but the terms should never again be used as synonyms. Biology determines sex. Society determines gender. That is not absolute truth, but the arbitrary distinction is useful to keep people from arguing when they do not really disagree.

For example, a woman at work as an automobile mechanic fills a role traditionally thought of as masculine. However, at play that same woman might exhibit her feminine, sexy side. If we want to talk about the battle between the sexes, we have to state whether we are talking about an exciting game with titillating overtones (sex at play) or competition between men and women for the same job (gender at work).

Many issues once thought to be of unique importance to women are now men's issues as well. Single fathers as well as single mothers lobbied airports, restaurants and other public places to put diaper-changing stations in public restrooms.

Women and men must deal with sexual harassment in workplaces. Whether or not to serve as a surrogate mother is definitely an important issue for the woman's husband or partner.

Furthermore, while it is true that illnesses in women affect a woman's attitude and dependability in the workplace, what about men? Community education efforts include such topics as "Cancer and Sexuality in Women." Indeed, the diagnosis and treatment of cancer may pose unique challenges for women in terms of intimacy, sexuality, body image and psychological adjustment.

Additionally, life-threatening or career-threatening illness poses a unique challenge for a man, too, in terms of intimacy, self-image, self-esteem and workplace dependability and attitude.

Changing attitudes

There are three basic reasons for the very existence of gender issues.

First, the traditional tendency to assign a social role based on biologic sex differences is a habit that is hard to break. Some men still believe the old Freudian myth that women are hysterical and that hysteria is a unique female characteristic.


With gallant motives, some men may still think they should protect members of the "weaker sex."

Second, a woman can give birth to a baby and a man cannot. No amount of social concern or open discussion can change that fact.

Third, and perhaps the greatest reason for inter-gender disputes, women want respect from men. Disrespect for women has always been a problem in the area of sexual attraction and lust. However, sexual harassment and off color humor are only part of the picture. Women want respect in their gender roles, too. Women want recognition of their intelligence, multi-dimensional nature, dependability, stability, good judgment, and skills. Women want the appreciation of co-workers, friends, and family members. Again, is that desire solely a female characteristic? No, it is not.

The key for men and women both is to understand that there are two kinds of respect. One kind of respect is a human right, the result of being born. One must earn the other kind of respect, such as respect for hard work and accomplishment and for ethical and moral behavior.


1. Kalish, D. "Companies get nosy about employees' e-mail." Associated Press, Corpus Christi Caller Times, online edition, March 4, 1999.

2. Painting by Norman Rockwell.

3. Mass Transportation magazine. July, 1943.

4. Diversity executives map the future: Neutralizing gender issues. Scottsdale National Gender Institute. 2003.

5. Hall, RT. An Introduction to Healthcare Organizational Ethics. Oxford Press. Oxford and New York, 2000.

By Richard E. Thompson, MD

Richard E. Thompson, MD, can be reached at or 417-848-9435.

This article contains copyrighted material from Think Before You Believe: Modern Day Myths. Questionable Claims, and Uncommon Sense, by Richard E. Thompson, Xlibris, Philadelphia, 2004, used with permission.
COPYRIGHT 2005 American College of Physician Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Ethical Aspects
Author:Thompson, Richard E.
Publication:Physician Executive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:Mapping the future of health care.
Next Article:Decision making in uncertainty (Part 1).

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