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Women in the workplace: halfway there with many miles to go.


Halfway There with Many Miles to Go

An international company based in New York comes out to Utah and buys a small company of about 40 people. This small company is doing well, and its employees know the product, the market, and the technology. The employees are from diverse backgrounds, but they are predominantly young, educated people from the West. They are enthusiastic about their work. Just a year and a half later, it's all falling apart. The women aren't the only ones who feel the weight of discrimination. The men are disheartened and angry as well, feeling the discrimination of "ageism" and regionalism. Every other week, resignations come in. Sales are down. Customers are unhappy with the "new way." Management back in New York looks down upon their Utah employees, feeling they don't know how to really do business. The problem: the employees are used to a style of friendship, teamwork, and cooperation. The New York company's corporate culture is suspicious of such behavior--it calls for subtle powerplays and aggression. Both groups feel they're doing things the right way; neither can understand the other.

This is a true story, a scenario that is repeated in a thousand variations. Varying styles of management and communication often generate subtle discriminatory behavior that even the most well-intentioned and progressive-thinking person may not be aware of. Differences in communication and management style are often responsible for the judgments people make about competency.

How will this affect the business world? According to Pat Freston, vice president of human resources at Questar Corp., the above scenario will become the norm unless business learns to integrate women and minorities. Workforce 2000, a government report, projects that by the start of the 21st century, women and minorities will make up the bulk of those entering the workplace.

Business will have a problem retaining skilled employees unless those employees feel that what they have to offer is of value and they are confident they can achieve their goals. And if business cannot adapt to the changing demographics of its employees, it will be unable to adapt to the similar demographics of its customers--not only in the domestic market but even in the more highly diversified global market.

Stating the Obvious

It is a fact that whether they enter the workplace for personal and/or economic reasons, women are enjoying more access to the workplace and to education.

We've heard about affirmative action programs, anti-discrimination bills, and progressive corporate policies. But before any of these things can work, there is a very subtle cultural layer that must change: that subconcious level where cultural differences in communication and management style seem to create misjudgments about the competency of those different from us.

Current research into cultural differences between the sexes and minorities postulates that discriminatory behavior may have its basis in miscommunication between these groups. In simpler terms: there are many times when we just don't understand each other--not in the home and not in the workplace.

Just What Does "Integration" Mean?

Faye Wine, community relations specialist for Utah Power and Light, has been very active in these issues for women and African-Americans. She says, "Full acceptance means first of all equal pay for equal work."

Wine also comments that acceptance means hiring a person solely on his or her qualifications, without concern for gender or race. With such acceptance comes empowerment, a new word in corporate America. "Empowerment makes a person feel he or she has a chance at a job regardless of his or her race, ethnic background, or sex. That person feels that he or she can make it in a company."

Shauna Graves, a seminar presenter for Innovations Consulting, believes that integration means ethnic and gender diversity at all levels of a business organization. "When you have diversity at all levels," she says, "you begin to get a sense of groups or other opinions."

Brenda Voisard, a staff member at the Women's Resource Center at the University of Utah, adds "There should be equal participation at all levels of business. The old argument that men have more years of experience is fading fast. Business needs to accept female leadership styles, to integrate the best elements from male and female styles."

While women yearn for acceptance and integration, many fear having to give in to the traditional white male corporate role model. Those interviewed point out that this role model is not bad or ineffective. It's just that men and women communicate and manage differently; gender brings with it a certain cultural orientation. Whether these differences are biological, spiritual, or socially ingrained is not a point to be argued here. What matters is that these differences exist and need to be dealt with.

A point of moderation is hard to find. Many women try to mold themselves to fit into male culture in order to "get ahead." Some women already have more of a "male" style; others find it an unnatural cultural orientation. With integration, the unique styles that both women and men bring to the workplace would be valued and exchanged among men and women.

And the issue of family life is a central one for women entering the workplace. The serious dearth of good child care can hamper a woman's job performance by causing increased absentism and anxiety about the quality of care her children receive.

Because large corporations may not be able to afford the flexibility of on-site child care, reduced hours, or job-sharing, many women leave the corporate scene to start their own businesses. Doing so gives them the authority to set forth family-friendly policies. While this is what many women may want, Voisard points out that it also isolates women outside the system.

Ultimately, the ideal seems to be summarized by Dr. Reba Keele, a professor at Brigham Young University who researches mentoring and networking styles: "Leadership will surrender itself to the gifts of others and the recognition that different styles and gifts are equal and valuable in an organization. That's what matters--not sex, color, or anything else."

Why Integration Makes Good Business Sense

It's probably safe to assume that most people yearn to "do the right thing" when it comes to accepting women into the business world. But in many respects, it will be the sheer force of economics that will coax American business to get serious about integration. The economic factors will be the need to retain skilled employees, the ability to manufacture a good product, the awareness of consumer demographics and cultural orientation, and the push to compete in the emerging global market.

Freston observes, "I think we could not have made the progress we have without legislation. But I believe that economic necessity would have driven these changes, though much more slowly. Women didn't have to work after World War II; but they do have to work now. And if employers need them and their skills, employers will have to pay for them."

The Workforce 2000 report makes these projections: between 1985 and 2000, 85 percent of those entering the workforce will be women and minorities. While the majority of the established workers will be the traditional white male, the needs of a young, ambitous workforce and the drop in the number of badly needed new workers will pressure business to make the workplace rewarding and comfortable for everyone.

These demographics reflect the changing composition of consumers and their cultural orientation. The basic questions of "What does the consumer want in a product and how do I make it appeal to him or her" will become more challenging to answer as domestic and global markets grow more complex. The input of product designers and marketing professionals who are members of diverse population segments will mean the difference between life and death for many businesses.

Happy, productive employees contribute greatly to the quality of a product. It takes not only communication, but the belief that each opinion is important. Graves points out, "There needs to be a synergistic utilization of each person's ideas and styles. Let's say you are in my employ. I work better independently, and you work better in groups: but we have to come together to get a major product out. We have to understand where the other is coming from, accept those differences, and decide how to work together. Otherwise, we will not put out a quality product, and our business will fail."

A company's sensitivity to cultural orientation will affect not only employees and products--it will affect that company's ability to compete in the global market as well. Graves continues, "We now have to compete on a global basis. We are a borderless society. There is a link between Japan, the U.S. and Europe. To compete, we must become culturally aware. To do that, we are going to have to bring all of these people into the workforce whom we haven't been willing to consider because they're different."

Keele believes that American business must learn to take advantage of its diversity by becoming culturally literate at home before going abroad. "My belief is that the U.S.'s competitive advantage at this moment is its diversity. Yes, Taiwan can do work cheaper, and the Third World nations have the labor. But in most of those countries there is a tremendous amount of homogeneity. Japan, for example, is famous for its absolute inability to incorporate cultures into its system. If we cannot learn how to use our diversity and the kinds of advantages that come from being able to move quickly in different directions, then we will lose all of our competitive advantage."

What Causes Discrimination?

Discrimination comes in many forms besides racism and sexism. A person could be discriminated against because of his or her accent, geographic orgin, sexual orientation, age, and other factors. Blatant discrimination is, of course, easy to identify in statements like, "What do you mean you want benefits and a raise--doesn't your husband make good money?"

It is the subtle, more subconscious forms of discrimination that damage individuals and set back companies. An interesting idea came to light among the interviews for this article: the origin of discrimination may perhaps go more deeply than gender or race--it may have its deepest roots in different styles of communication and management. The problem is that most people aren't even aware of what's going on and how they make the judgments they do.

The struggle for understanding between the sexes is as old a story as the human race. Henry Higgins wasn't alone when he cried, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" In our century, the struggle slipped out the front door of the home and entered the workplace.

Searching for understanding is a difficult task. We automatically look for differences and similarities. This is only logical, but it also means we take the risk of creating more stereotypes. It may be that as we seek to understand the cultural differences between men and women, our society faces one of its most interesting challenges--with discoveries that could teach us much about harmony.

Judging Competence by Similarity

It is all too human, when we don't understand why someone does something the way he or she does it, to judge that person's competence. Keele gives an example from the classroom that can be applied to the workplace as well.

"I think that most often when we're confused about what a person is talking about or what he or she is trying to do, we feel a need to denigrate that person. For example, most teachers I know--when they give a test and everyone does badly with no one scoring above 75 percent--give the immediate response: |What a dumb group of students.' It's threatening to face the possibility that maybe they did not write the test very well or that they did not teach the material in the most effective way.

"It's easier to blame the other person. So we end up with statements like, |Oh, she's a woman, or he's African-American--that explains it.' It's more that we really confuse style and competence."

According to research which Voisard has conducted at the University of Utah, women not only face being misjudged and misunderstood because of differences in style, they must work harder or perform more than men to be seen as competent. Voisard studied the effect of students' gender stereotypes on their evaluation of teachers.

Voisard writes, "As we studied the research conducted . . . it became clear that women instructors must walk a tightrope between fitting the stereotype of |woman' and fitting the stereotype of |instructor.' Though we know that being a woman and an instructor are not imcompatible, the sterotypes of these two roles create problems. Women instructors find themselves trying to fit the conflicting stereotypes of being perceived as feminine, friendly, and nurturant, while still being seen as competent."

Three main points emerged from Voisard's research:

1. Students expect women to be nurturing; the female instructors were more often accused of grading tougher than the male instructors. 2. Women were expected to be more available to students than the men. Women had to spend more hours after class with students in order to get a good rating in this area. 3. To be rated as competent as men, women had to smile more often and be more sociable. Men were rated as competent whether they were friendly or not.

Contemporary writing suggests that women, after being in the workplace for a decade or two now, are happy to be there. But they are unhappy with having to conform to the traditional corporate male role model. Graves calls it creating a "false sense of being" that naturally produces frustration and stress. As more women and minorities enter the workplace and this role model becomes less representative of the majority, business will need to sort through the conflicts this creates. With such differences in the way we communicate and the things we value, how can men and women learn to work with each other?

Learning What It's Like to Be Different

From her vantage point as a manager, Freston suggests that corporate America needs to better understand how t use the best traits from both female and male culture. "I believe that great leaders, male and female, blend the best of both."

To be able to appreciate differences and integrate them, however, one must first understand what it is like to be different. Seminars in diversity place people in situations that teach them what it is like to be in the minority.

The responsibility to become educated about discrimination works both ways. Voisard suggests that women need to let men know when they feel misunderstood or subject to discriminatory behavior. Keele suggests that the approach entail not only diplomacy but trust. "We need to trust when there is disagreement. Even though I disagree with the other person, I still assume that their motives are just as good as mine. I think that is what's lacking many times in the many kinds of interchanges."

Voisard suggests much the same approach: "Assume the other party didn't mean to do it. It makes them less defensive and more open." Given the subconscious level at which discrimination seems to occur, most people aren't aware of what they are doing.

The fight to end discrimination starts with individuals but must be taken to the organizational level as well. Keele asserts, "The changes need to start in the organization. The majority group needs to agree to examine the organization for issues, policies, procedures, or practices that make it difficult for anyone to do his or her job as well as he or she wants to do it."

Keele suggests a model for how to try to understand and appreciate gender-based differences in style: "I try to balance. I work very much from the model that leadership power comes from knowing what I do well, and what I don't do well. It means bringing into my business people who do things that I don't do well. Find out who you are and what you can bring to the workplace through any group you're part of. That's your power, and you gain no power by trying to be different from who you are. This validates the strengths of all."

Cara Bullinger is editor of Utah Business
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Title Annotation:integrating ethnic and gender diversity into the workplace
Author:Bullinger, Cara M.
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Aug 1, 1991
Previous Article:Women as legislators, women as employers: striving for balance in public policy.
Next Article:Women who mean business: it's a balancing act.

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