He Speaks, She Speaks

A gender communication specialist unravels the mystery of how men and women communicate.

Conquest or Community: How Men and Women Approach Work

Men and women have different approaches to work.

Men and women have different approaches to work. Men tend to come to the workplace looking to win, to make that conquest. It’s a competition. It’s a contest. If you’re not helping him win, then you are the enemy or an unimportant underling.

Men learn quickly that they are the breadwinners. They are expected to work. They have to support themselves and probably a significant other and children. Granted, some men in Generation X and Y have moved back home with the folks and somewhere missed the concept that they actually have to work and earn money. In a 2004 CBS News online report by correspondent Richard Schlesinger, an estimated two-thirds of college graduates have returned home to live with their parents, some for longer periods of time than others. They even have a name: boomerang kids.

Still, most Gen Xers and Yers are out there working, earning money, and supporting themselves. Most men have gotten the message, and they know that they alone are responsible for their career, for getting ahead and for making the bucks. Men tend to be constantly seeking a more impressive job title, prestige, and professional achievement. After all, that’s what marks a real man (or so we’ve been taught).

Preventing women from achieving their career goals is the fact that women tend not to think of themselves as the breadwinner, as someone who has to work and support their significant other and children. Many women have been raised to believe that when they grow up, they’ll be part of a family. They may not have to work, and if they do work, their income will be secondary to that of their significant other. If they do work, they will enter and leave the workforce periodically when they give birth and/or raise their children, or they may stop working altogether when they have kids.

For many women, work is a place to build friendships, relationships, and community. Now, that’s not the reason behind women working. We don’t say, “I need a new friend. I think I’ll work.” It’s one approach to work. It’s, “Well if I have to work, I might as well make the best of it and enjoy the people I work with maybe even meet a new friend.” Most women are looking for enough cash to pay the bills, do a good job, meet new people, and make a contribution with their lives.

In a chapter called “Gendered Stories of Career: Unfolding Discourses of Time, Space, and Identity” in The Sage Handbook of Gender and Communication, communication professor Patrice Buzzanell and doctoral student Kristen Lucas write about how men and women come to careers differently. There’s a masculine approach that is similar to a quest. It’s a straight path that starts when the man is young and creates his vision for the future. It’s considered the traditional path, with the focus on external material rewards. He must be the perfect worker, always working overtime without any complaints, dedicated, loyal, reflect an image of management, and prefer work over personal and family time. According to Buzzanell and Lucas, this traditional path includes having a spouse and kids, which usually goes hand-in-hand with a higher salary and career advancement. The female career revolves around relationships. It’s a career staged in phases that includes a significant other, employment, being a mom, and caring for others, say Buzzanell and Lucas. The typical female career includes a focus on the community and service organizations, and incorporates time away from the job raising children or caring for sick parents. It’s not a linear progression, as seen in the masculine career approach. Buzzanell and Lucas suggest the feminine career approach includes full- and part-time jobs, jobs that may better accommodate her family responsibilities, owning her own business, and jobs that empower herself and others.

Men or women may play out either role when seeking their careers. A few men may prefer the feminine approach to careers, and a few women may prefer the masculine approach to careers, according to Buzzanell and Lucas. These two different approaches yield different results: ultimately, more men (many more[md]97.6 percent) than women (2.4 percent) are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to 2008 Catalyst statistics. The number of women of color in executive positions in Fortune 500 companies is minimal. These numbers illustrate how differently men’s and women’s careers take shape.

* Adapted from Audrey's book (co-author), Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen (Alpha Books, 2009).

Audrey Nelson is an international corporate communication consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker.

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