From office politics to sexual harassment, gender is the key concept for understanding how to create healthier work environments. Here is a brief offering of some concepts that are helpful to know.

Myth Buster: Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Men and Women are of the Earth. There are biological sex differences and hormonal influences, and boys and girls are socialized differently, but men and women have more in common than they have in distinction. I am referring to commonalities we share about life in general. The meta-analysis of Hyde states that “males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables” (2005). From that study we learn that one of the few differences are some motor behaviors (girls really are often not as good at throwing a ball). Also, in Canada and the U.S. today, “gender differences in sexual behaviors and attitudes may not be as large as popular opinion suggests” (Peterson & Hyde 2010). Focusing on a person’s sex tends to reinforce the limiting assumptions we already make, as if women and men can each be reduced to a uniform essence. It is time to move the focus away from sex and on to gender.

Sex is commonly thought of as a binary distinction, but the International Olympic Committee has encountered athletes with complexities that effect about one person of each one thousand. Because of those complexities which create an intersex condition, they now define who is a woman by androgen levels and not by chromosomes, DNA or genitalia due to the variations in the latter elements. In light of these variations in sex that were little known before, perhaps we should not be so surprized by the many varieties of gender identification we hear about these days (ze/hirself, pangender etc.).

Gender is something that every society defines for itself and is built on top of biological sex differences. Gender is the meaning we give to ‘male’ and ‘female’ as social categories and thus sets up expectations for what behaviors we will then expect from each. For example, since pre-Columbian times until today in some parts of Mexico, the Zapotec speaking “muxes” have male bodies but do not identify as male or female (Burnett 2016). Even though it is a social construct, gender impacts how we make sense of the way we relate to people.

Boys in their early cognitive development see masculine/feminine as binary opposites, but since the 1970s, social psychology has viewed masculinity and femininity as two groups of traits that any one person can have in varying intensity. To have lots of both is to be androgynous, and to have little of either is to be undifferentiated. Recent methods of evaluating people do not merely rely on self-evaluations of personal attributes our society considers masculine or feminine. They are more about how we choose to define ourselves and they now include automatic and spontaneous aspects such as response times (Wood and Eagly 2015). It is like the new internet dating sites — it is not just what your favourite colour or movie is. You can find true love with someone who prefers a different colour or movie. The amount of time you take to ponder the question about colours or movies is also revealing about how you relate to the world.

A simplified but useful way to think of gender is that the most masculine personality traits are said to be goal-oriented, dominant and assertive. The most feminine traits are to be expressive and nurturing or communal (Hoffman and Borders 2001). Almost all men and women have some mix of both. Some researchers have even found that when parents or people in close relationships perform nurturing and caretaking roles, the testosterone circulating in their bodies is reduced (Wood and Eagly 2015).


How Gender Has Come to be Known


Current ideas about gender are indebted to third wave feminist thought. Briefly, the first wave started in the late nineteenth-century and lasted until the early twentieth. It was linked with specific claims for the right to vote and, later, the temperance movement. From the 1960s on, the modernist second wave was concerned with the oppression of women by the twin forces of class and patriarchy. Awareness was raised about the prevalence of masculine pronouns. What I claim that you need to know is about the third wave.

Just as postmodern theory was being explored in continental philosophy; new actors within feminism changed the game. The women’s movement was criticized as “simple binary oppositions between men-the-oppressors and women-the-passive-victims” were rejected. Feminism was criticised by “lesbians for privileging heterosexual concerns, by working-class women for reflecting middle-class interests, and by women of colour for being implicitly white” (Bradley 2013). Judith Butler drew attention to the many ways we all ‘do gender’. Gender identity is not only makeup and clothes. Many boys and young men find the motivation to shoot pucks at the garage wall, lift weights, or do whatever it takes to shape their bodies into a masculine form and “be a man”. Doing gender takes a huge amount of men’s time and money for conditioning, tests of courage and stamina, and schemes to get girls into bed (this can be more goal oriented than relational). These efforts correspond to the continuous creaming and preening of every part of the body that femininity is thought to require. Doing gender, in verbal and nonverbal behavior, impacts how we relate to strangers and those closest to us.

Third wave postmodern feminism highlights the intersections of gender with class, ethnicity and age, and sees genders as “both social constructs and sets of social relations” (Bradley 2013). Post-modernists are self-reflexive and suspicious of binary oppositions, and those attitudes are helpful in understanding gender. A couple of examples will make this clear.

Second wave modernist feminists had a critical view of the North American nuclear family because the work of raising children and maintaining a household was falling on the shoulders of women. These burdens were also limiting career choices and opportunities for women. However, women from minority ethnicities tended not to live in a nuclear family but often had close relations with extended family. Many single mothers were figures of authority in these families. Also, the family setting was a refuge from the racial discrimination the women faced in the larger society. So the intersections with class and ethnicity called for a new approach.

Another example of a gender and ethnic intersection is the famous case of the women of Iran. In Iran in 1936, the Shah Pahlavi banned the wearing of the chador (headwear) so that women would appear more decorative and appealing. Some women who had never worn the chador before were insulted and started to wear one in protest. Then in 1979, the Ayotollah Khomeini ordered all women to wear them, so some women went with their heads uncovered in protest (DeFrancisco et al. 2014). When an Arab woman covers her head, is it deference to authority, a personal identity choice, or a statement about an issue in society?  We can’t assume that we know. We all dress to fit in with an identity group by either blending or impressing, so ways of dressing that are different from my way are really valid ways of doing the same blending or impressing that I do in my white masculine way.


Ways to Find Out What You Need To Know


With postmodernism, then, we have a messier picture. No one is ‘just’ a typical man or woman. We all work to construct our gender identities. Other identity issues interact with these. And in the workplace, there is a great deal of overlap between the gendered aspects of people’s performance on the job which is more important to attend to than their sex. If only we could do some kind of controlled experiment to help us understand what really is different for men and women! If only we could hold all variables constant and just change the sex of the person to see how their lives at work would be different. While such experimental methods are neither possible nor ethical, there are some real life experiences that offer an anecdotal yet privileged perspective.

Schilt & Connell interviewed 28 transsexual/transgender people in Los Angeles, California and Austin, Texas between 2003 and 2005. Whether these people changed from women to men (transmen) or the other way (transwomen), they all remained at the same jobs. The only variable was their new gender which was given credibility before co-workers by their hormone therapies. What comes out of these interviews is the way that the co-workers rallied around the project of pulling and pushing the people away from any possible median position and toward the new gender as if it were a binary choice.

Newly created ‘men’ were welcomed into locker rooms and included in conversations about sports and heterosexual exploits. Their female coworkers started asking them to move furniture, lift heavy objects and fix things. The new women were included in ‘girl talk’ about fashion and relationships, and advice on how to use makeup was easy to get. From these interviews it seems that the co-workers could cope with the transitions as long as the individuals became a regular guy or gal. The social pressures as to how to ‘do gender’ were simply made obvious since they were so new to those who had transitioned.

One person who transitioned from man to woman described being pressured to stop speaking like a man. She said, “There is one thing that really drives me crazy — when I’m asked for my opinion on a subject [from men], I have to remember — ‘Do not express it as firmly as I actually believe’ (Schilt & Connell 2007). Indeed, when Catherine Connell interviewed nineteen employed transgender people in 2005 – 2006, she heard that transwomen found that they were no longer listened to the same way. Assertion of views was much more challenging and their opinions, that once held sway, were now questioned. On the other hand, a transman in the police force was now taken more seriously. Colleagues asked the transman why he was only a parole officer when he had the right stuff to be a cop (Connell 2010).


What You Need To Know About Gender Identity and Sexual Harassment


Myth buster: Men are not more aggressive than women. In a meta-analysis of 57 empirical studies, a team of researchers, mostly with Canadian universities, found studies suggesting all three possibilities; that men are more aggressive, that women are, and that there is no significant relation between sex and aggressiveness (Hershcovis et al. 2007, 230). Of course being assertive, as men are more likely to be, is not necessarily the same as being aggressive.

‘Doing gender’ at work involves how we communicate in same-sex groups and between the sexes. This communication includes ‘girl talk’ and ‘boy banter’ which can function as a way to develop bonds in same-sex groups. Unfortunately, it is common for men’s banter to be based on girl watching and sexist jokes. This is what postmodernists call a ‘discursive practice’, which is to say that language is used to create and maintain gender identity distinctions. In this case it is a bad way to go about it. This banter reduces humans who are female to a one-dimensional object for men’s evaluation of their sex appeal. In a 2002 study, Beth Quinn had men look at girl watching from a women’s perspective. Myth buster: The men understood that it was demeaning! Quinn concludes that the men did not have enough motivation to change this behavior (in DeFrancisco et al. 2014). It is easy to create a sense of ‘us’ by comments that put down an identifiable ‘them’. I had a friend who did this all the time until the day that I started to wonder what he said about me when I was not there. The ‘us versus them’ strategy is pretty limited.

Earlier, we said that gender itself is a social construct and that it intersects with other identity variables. In another Canadian study using focus groups, the white women’s definitions of sexual harassment were similar to the legal definition. However, some black women and Filipinas reported a more complex experience because the harassing behaviors were partly racist as well (Welsh et al. 2006). The intersections of gender with class and ethnicity can create a very harsh reality.

As for the men, Good et al. (1995) found that the adoption and maintenance of traditional male ideologies is the most reliable variable for prediction of violence against women. They found that levels of traditional/sexist beliefs about gender roles were the most useful things to know when predicting the levels of violence as defined by the endorsement of rape myths, adversarial relations and psychological violence towards women. Not all traditionalists were violent, but this characteristic had a better correlation with violence than did poor problem-solving ability, lack of goals, or negative emotions. It seems plausible that traditional/sexist ideas about gender roles that were always unfair to women are increasingly problematic for men now that a critical mass of people in our society has moved on. These sexist ideas are accompanied by fears of emasculation, negative emotions, and defense mechanisms (O’Neil & Nadeau 1999). Those negative emotions, including anger, anxiety and especially shame, then call up defense mechanisms of control, restricted emotionality, and homophobia/heterosexism (Ibid.).


What We Do At Work – Really


We have seen the typical orientations expected of people rated as highly and uniquely masculine or feminine. Let’s look at some work behaviors in a new light. Patricia Yancey Martin has studied behavior in for-profit organizations. Myth Buster: Men do not act differently at work than women do. They speak differently, but their actionsduring normal working hours are similar. The negative stereotype of women at work includes “wasting time talking to coworkers, pretending to like people they dislike, making decisions based on affect rather than “objective” evidence, and ignoring rules in favor of particularistic sentiments” (Martin 2003). Yet in her fieldwork, Martin observed men wasting time chatting and visiting, “sucking up” to each other, “making decisions based on liking rather than performance, and protecting incompetents”. This behavior is rational where men dominate because men maintain the relationships that will help them advance their careers. The behaviors of men vary according to their audience. “Peacocking” and self-promotion is done for other men, while dominating behaviors can be for both women and men (Ibid.). The main difference in behavior occurs after hours. Men who are less constrained by family commitments can advance their careers by working late – a way of “mobilizing masculinity”. Men can also develop their networks at golf courses and in bars in ways that exclude women.

These ways of mobilizing masculinity are the reason that we will never get gender equality in business or representational politics simply by setting a numerical target for places for women. Besides the fact that women require the same training and mentoring opportunities as men do, quotas reflect the simplistic M/F dichotomy I am arguing against. Women are not all the same and do not all face the same obstacles. A more realistic view of gender and its intersections with other identities will lead to rethinking of the existing preconditions for taking roles in institutions (Jalušič 2009).


What We Can Do Differently


In reading this, you are demonstrating openness to new perspectives and the potential to try new behaviors. Perceiving the behaviors of yourself and others in the light of new theories and concepts will cause change. I hope this article has revealed some of the dynamics of gendered interactions at work.

Experts consider that the most revealing and operational personality traits that are gendered are goal-orientation, dominance and assertion as masculine, and expressiveness and nurturing as feminine. The point is obvious. We all have some measure of these traits in some contexts. The key to success is not only to reject the stereotypes of gender, but to mobilise the appropriate traits in the appropriate situations. Dominance may be most appropriate when you are with your dog, but there are times when you must act from a position of authority at work. Expressiveness, or appropriate acknowledgement of your feelings and the feelings of others, is appropriate at other times and is something that many men now do better than they used to. While men are now often praised and admired for this, women are not and may even be unfairly criticised for being too emotional when they do the same thing.

Gender awareness is not only about feminism; we need to validate the positive contributions of men. As Nathanson and Young (2015) point out, men’s identities are under duress. There is almost no role left that is exclusive to men. The current context of production which does not require strong bodies obliges men to redefine themselves. Since postmodernism is better at deconstruction than at solidifying identities, it is a challenging time for men. We need to look for winning conditions for both genders. If we become aware of our gender-based assumptions and validate them with each co-worker, recognize the various contributions of everyone, and respect our differences, we can have healthier and more productive places to work. And yes, there has been a study that found incivility toward women at work negatively affects both men and women (see O’Leary-Kelly et al. 2009).

John Inder


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Wood, Wendy and Alice H. Eagly. “Two Traditions of Research on Gender Identity.” Sex Roles (2015) 73:461 – 473