People who see men and women as fundamentally different are more likely to accept workplace discrimination

People who see men and women as fundamentally different are more likely to accept workplace discrimination
We can’t predict how workers will act, based on their sex. Credit: Rawpixel

How should people who care about gender equality in the workplace argue their case? The most popular approach is to make the "business case" argument: that greater inclusion of women enhances profits and performance.

Unfortunately, the business case argument often draws on a " essentialist" view. This holds that are fundamentally, immutably and naturally different from men. The inclusion of women benefits the organisation, it suggests, because women bring uniquely female skills and perspectives that complement those of men.

One company that provides gender diversity leadership training programs, for example, recommends "learning how to recognise, value, and leverage" the "naturally occurring characteristics that distinguish men and women".

Our research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, points to some concerning workplace impacts of this inaccurate view of the sexes.

Mars and Venus

The "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" view of the sexes is undermined by decades of behavioural science.

Yes, there will be average differences between 100 female board directors and 100 male ones. But these differences don't add up to create neat categories of men who think like this and women who think like that.

We simply can't predict how an individual director will think or lead, based on their sex.

Previous studies have shown that people who think in essentialist, "interplanetary" ways about gender tend to hold attitudes, perceptions and preferences that reinforce the gender status quo. Our research took these investigations in new directions, and our findings have implications for workplace dynamics.

What did we find?

Led by Danish researcher Lea Skewes, our study began by developing and validating a new measure for assessing gender-essentialist thinking. Our scale captures people's beliefs that gender characteristics are biologically determined, fundamentally dissimilar, fixed, and powerfully predictive of behaviour.

We trialled this new scale in large, nationally representative samples of about 1,800 people in Australia and Denmark.

In both countries, gender essentialists were less supportive of gender equality than non-essentialists. They were less in favour of egalitarian roles in relationships, parenting, work and education.

They were also more supportive of discriminatory workplace practices, and more likely to perceive contemporary workplaces as non-discriminatory.

Interestingly, Australian men thought in a more essentialist way about gender than Australian women, but Danish men and women did not differ.

In both countries, gender essentialism was associated with anti-egalitarian gender attitudes and beliefs, independently of political orientation and general acceptance of social hierarchy.

In other words, gender essentialists don't oppose gender equality simply because they are conservative or generically anti-egalitarian.

Disobeying gender norms

We also investigated whether gender essentialists would react negatively towards women and men who don't conform to .

This reaction is known as the "backlash effect". We anticipated that people who see gender categories as natural and deep-seated would be especially critical of others who violate gendered expectations.

Sure enough, gender essentialists were especially prone to show backlash. They were more likely than non-essentialists to be outraged by a female political candidate who was described as power-seeking, for example, and by a male candidate who was not.

These results point to the value of research into whether gender-essentialist beliefs are implicated in other forms of . For example, are gender essentialists particularly unsympathetic to working fathers who ask for flexible or part-time work? These kinds of questions warrant further investigation.

What are the implications?

Our findings raise some important questions for human resources practitioners working to reduce gender-based discrimination in organisations. Are programs that promote the essentialist view that women and men have fundamentally different and complementary skills impeding rather than improving workplace equality? Might programs that challenge inaccurate gender-essentialist beliefs be more effective than unconscious bias training programs?

Finally, our findings point to the need for care and accuracy in how arguments for promoting women's leadership are made. Arguing that women have uniquely empathic or collaborative leadership styles could have counterproductive effects on gender attitudes.

We can discuss the benefits of including previously excluded perspectives and experiences without attributing those different standpoints to a timeless, universal womanly essence.

We can recognise gender balance changes group dynamics by altering group norms, not by a simplistic "just add woman" model. Simply dropping female workers into an organisation with a non-inclusive culture will not transform it by pink magic.

And we don't have to fall back on gender essentialism to argue that institutions led primarily by a homogeneous group will tend to neglect the interests, concerns and needs of other groups.

Explore further

Through the glass ceiling

Journal information: PLoS ONE

Provided by The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

Citation: People who see men and women as fundamentally different are more likely to accept workplace discrimination (2018, August 27) retrieved 23 May 2019 from
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User comments

Aug 27, 2018
Men and women are the same. The police have always made certain to send at least some men to break up the local bar fights. They need to show us how its done and not discriminate. The police need to show us by dispatching female only patrols to bar fights.

Aug 27, 2018
Men and women are the same. The police have always made certain to send at least some men to break up the local bar fights. They need to show us how its done and not discriminate. The police need to show us by dispatching female only patrols to bar fights.

LOL - Perhaps you meant to say, "Men and women are NOT the same" because they're not. There is "good equality" and there is "bad equality". Good equality requires women to be included in such workplace settings as STEM research; higher-learning professorships; and other professional endeavors such as in Medicine, as long as those women are at least equal in intelligence and skills as compare to men of equal intelligence and skills.
Bad equality is what you have said regarding the breaking up of bar fights by women. It is a bad idea to place women in such a situation where they could be punched in their breasts and other sensitive places. A woman who is impervious to terrible pain, however, may be able to endure it.

Aug 27, 2018
There is also the fairly new question of the "transgender male" who is claiming to be female, who has changed his name to that of a woman, dresses as a female and wants to be treated as a female. How does society handle such a faux female? Does gender equality apply in such a case also? Some might say 'yes'
In the US, there is a woman who claims to be a man who has been complaining that it isn't fair that men don't get menstrual periods. She calls herself a "non-binary trans" - whatever that is.
There are many other examples of the rank-and-file of each gender crossing over to the other gender and identifying as the opposite gender. How does that translate into 'equal treatment' without any discrimination.
There are also some American parent(s) who encourage their young sons and daughters to identify as a member of the opposite sex. That is, of course, child abuse, but it goes on anyway, and little can be done to prevent it. IMO there is a form of sick madness going around.

Aug 27, 2018
Where there is zero discrimination employers do not count or are even aware of he male-female ratio any more than they are aware of the Protestant-Catholic ratio or Christian-non-Christian ratio of their workers. An indication of such non-discrimination is the random way the ratio actually falls, somewhere between all men,, all women, and so ratio of men to women. A near exact ratio of men to women can only occur when active discrimination evaluates candidates for the gender in light of the artificially maintained gender ratio of the company.

Aug 29, 2018
Perhaps I shouldn't quite put it this way - but it needs to be said.
I have never understood why gender in the workplace is of so much importance. I know that, to certain groups of either male or female, it is of the utmost importance to see members of their own group/gender succeeding and climbing the ladder to the very top and, somehow they think that it reflects on them and their gender. But when either a man or woman climbs to the very top in the workplace, it has absolutely nothing to do with gender (unless he or she has been promoted due to something other than optimum skills and innovative ideas).

So, a firm that seeks to be #1 in its field of endeavour should never hire on the basis of "what's between the thighs", but ONLY hire on the basis of "what's between the ears" in order to be truly effective and successful in the business world. Most customers/clients don't deal with any business based on whether the agent is male or female, but only on the "art of the deal".

Sep 03, 2018
Don't forget the other dimension, employers who discriminate *on behalf of their clients*. This form of discrimination sees more sexy bar maids hired because they attract patrons who discriminate between bar personnel, choosing female secretaries, receptionists and other staff because this practice makes an actual difference to profit.

That is why you might get female personnel managers or employers engaging in this form of discrimination.

A further form is the anticipated life time reliability of employees, not something that is top of mind in the fluid employment conditions in modern times. By way of example, my 1980s girlfriend and all of her female colleagues studying medicine and becoming doctors took around two to four years off to raise young children and all of them worked only part time for nearly half their careers, none specialised. All of her male colleagues worked full time continuously through their careers and some specialised, average of twice the output.

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