Yes, this article is about gender bias – and yet, it’s not. In the real world, no one is free from bias, and will sometimes jump to conclusions too quickly. As a leader, these mistakes might have severe consequences, so being aware of the role that gender might play in your company is crucial to (your and your team’s) success.
If you try to find information online about the differences between men and women in a business context, you will find a lot of information on the differences between male and female leaders. However, it makes a lot of sense to look into the other direction, too: If you lead a team of men, you will most probably face different challenges than if you lead a team of women or a mixed team. The funny thing is: It’s not really about gender – it’s about how society thinks the genders should be.
As the head of technology, I was confronted with the situation that I took over a team consisting of only men. Before I go into the details of how this was different from my previous experience, let me make one thing very clear: This is not about basing your leadership style on gender bias – on the contrary! I have been in many situations where I felt the need to defend my team because people kept automatically assuming that for me as a woman leading a male team would be a challenge – that they would give me a hard time. It also regularly prompted people to talk about them raising their sons, which seems to be much harder than raising daughters. I love leading this team. It was never easy, but that is due to the nature of leading a team and had nothing to do with their genders.
We do not necessarily behave in a certain way because we’re male or female. As a leader, do not make the mistake to base your judgement on the gender of your team member. We do however behave in a certain way based on our behavioral style. Based on the four behavioral styles, everyone acts according to their preferences on the two scales of responsiveness and assertiveness, which results in four different behavioral styles (analyzer, director, relater, socializer). In the real world – which is messy, as usual – you will rarely find someone who is just one of those types. Most of us instead act according to several of these styles, with a preference for one direction or the other. Analyzing the behavioral style of your team members will help you to gain their trust, by acting in a way they feel comfortable and that they can understand.
Get to Know Your Team Members
Most of us behave differently when we are in a one-on-one meeting than in a group meeting. This has to do with social dynamics, who we want to be in the group, and how we feel that day (among many, many other reasons…). When I took over my team, I set up one-on-one meetings with my direct reports as a starting point of our collaboration. I did this although we already knew each other well (I had been in the company for three years already). I did this although the signals coming from my direct reports were mainly negative at first – they didn’t see the need to have these meetings at all. Additionally, my own team colleagues also didn’t understand why I was so eager on those meetings, and that’s where I heard it first: Your team is all male, they are easy-going and will let you know when they need something. As a leader, one of your most important skills is to stand by your word and your reasoning. I had set up these meetings with good reason, and I needed to be insistent and go through with them. And good thing I did, because I learned a lot about my new team members in those meetings. The most important thing that became clear was that I would have been very mistaken if I had assumed that I know how they would react, solely based on the fact that they’re men.
Learning about the behavioral styles in your team is crucial for your success. If you do your homework and get to know your team members, you will not have to rely on assumptions based on their gender.
Why Assumptions Still Can Help
I hope that at this point, it is very clear that being a leader and assuming certain characteristics based on the gender of your team members will not work. However, there are some characteristics that you will find to be more present in male than in female teams. That is, again, not because of their gender. It is because of society’s bias towards these genders.
When I plan workshops, I always have a look at the participants and also at their gender. There are certain exercises that traditionally work better with a female or male or mixed groups. Let me also stress that because it’s about society’s bias towards genders, this does not contradict the fact of assuming fluid genders or more than two genders – which I generally do. Society suggests that ‘men’ will not talk about their feelings so much (or simply do not have feelings?), which means that if you start your workshop with an exercise where everybody should describe their feelings in a certain situation, you have a greater chance of this activity to end early with ‘men’ than with ‘women’. This is also due to the fact that your team members themselves might be biased (towards their own gender) – and therefore might not feel comfortable with sharing their feelings in a group, because it’s not appropriate for men. This is something to keep in mind as a leader, as there are many other examples: With women, you might have more difficulties to engage them in a technical topic, or to work with a new software. This is not because women cannot understand technology as well as men, but rather because they might feel the need to fit in a certain picture within the group.
See? It’s Not About Gender!
If someone talks about typically male or typically female characteristics, it’s just the bias talking! If we lived in an ideal world where everybody is free from bias, we wouldn’t associate these values with a gender. In our world however, it’s most probably not you who is the most biased. What you will encounter is therefore a result of your team members being biased themselves, and engaging in typical behavior more often than they know – just because society suggests that this is an appropriate way to deal with something. Your challenge as the team leader will be to get to know your team members and their behavioral style, and to really understand them. This allows you to analyze how much your team members engage in these behaviors, and create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable to be who they are, and react in the way that is natural to them, without any fears of being rejected.