Experience Can Be Our Worst Enemy

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Many of the stereotypes we believe to be absolute truths are the result of personal experiences that confirm the worst in other people. When we act on our prejudices about someone that is “not like us” we never stop to think about our thoughts from another point of view. Ironically we demand proof from others when we never do that of ourselves. Intellectually we know that anecdotal evidence is flawed, but if it reinforces a previous notion or the latest trend from the media we act without thinking. Gender stereotypes are no exception. Because of the stark differences between males and females in their body functions it is easy to “see” differences where none exist. At a bare minimum it raises serious questions about the true differences on the job. Good management needs to recognize the true differential and maximize positive gender attributes without falling into the pit of prejudicial discrimination.

Typical dinnertime conversation at my house often drifts to daily reinforcement of gender stereotypes. My wife works in the engineering world and is surrounded by testosterone influenced thinking. I work in the human resources pink palace of woman dominated management. Yes, we live the stereotypes! Our discussions raise questions about our perspective based on our personal lives. My wife was once denied a credit card from Discover after she separated from her first husband because in those days married women had trouble getting credit on their own. I was a single parent raising two kids in a society that looked at me with upraised eyebrows from the perspective that kids should always be raised by a woman. From that background, it would seem to be harder to form an objective viewpoint, but we make an honest attempt to get a big picture look at the world… a daunting task.

When I was an engineering student at Georgia Tech there were not very many women students in my classes. Things have improved over the years, but in spite of the fact that women college graduates outnumber male college graduates there is still a large disparity in the number of male engineers. Only about 20% of the total engineering population today is female. Most people attribute this to conditioning in primary education of boys and girls that has continued to reinforce old stereotypes. Renewed focus on STEM education may change these numbers, but the real question is to determine if this is really a problem? Are we losing the contribution of brilliant minds because of gender bias? If it is a matter of barriers to opportunity we need to be concerned. If it is a perpetuation of stereotypes, should we consciously try to change it?

The human resources profession today remains about 70% female, but in HR executive ranks it is only about 30%. With the numbers of females in middle management HR roles, there is a sign that those numbers in the most senior jobs will eventually reach parity. Years ago I saw a number of these women managers evolving from the administrative ranks. This makes sense since the HR profession has evolved into something once considered to be mostly administrative. Change happens only when open minds are willing to look at ability rather than gender in making hiring and promotion choices. The logical question is whether or not this profession is “more suitable” for women or if it is simply the logical development of business thinking of years gone by. If it means a barrier to opportunity to males in HR then this is a problem. If it perpetuates the stereotype of a place defined by gender=female, should we consciously change it?

Looking at gender roles beyond the biological differences between men and women will remain a challenge. Maybe this is a statement of personal bias rather than fact, but it seems that the very discussion of the need to look at these roles in an unbiased way is seen as bias. Talk about this! Don’t let the myths outweigh common sense and reality.

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