Recently I had a discussion with an older retired woman who started her career in engineering in the 70’s. She spent her college days and most of her career as the woman in the room. Shortly into our talk she brought up how her male colleagues would drive her nuts. It wasn’t how they acted but how they thought and did their work that frustrated her.
When the male-dominated workplace has a complex task, it breaks the task down into smaller pieces and distributes the pieces to individuals to complete. The workplace assumes that if each person completes their task correctly then when all the pieces come back together, all the pieces will miraculously fit together. Those of us who have worked extensively with men know that never happens. We wind up with pieces that changed their shape and no longer fit. This creates crises as we do a lot of rework to make the pieces fit.
The reason this happens is Autonomy. The male-dominated workplace encourages men to complete their task based upon their judgement. So men do their task based upon what works from their perspective. They forget their task is connected to other tasks and has to fit back into the bigger picture.
This problem is further compounded when men aspire to have expertise. Expertise is how men gain status in the male-dominated workplace. But in order to increase their expertise, they continually narrow their focus as they dive down deeper and deeper into the task. As they dive into the depths of detail, they continue to break things apart until they get individual, stand-alone parts. Men in STEM are very good at doing this and this is what my friend continuously dealt with.
Now that her colleagues had all of these individual little parts, they had to assemble them back into the big picture. This is where her male colleagues struggled – there were too many pieces and too much detail for them to connect.
We always hear that to understand the big picture you have to be removed from it, to look at it from afar. And when we do that we will sacrifice detail. In order to understand and see detail we need to narrow our focus, see fewer parts. This is a male perspective – a perspective that is not good at multi-tasking, forming relationships, creating connections and working in groups.
This is what drove my friend nuts. She could take her male colleagues’ detailed, individual pieces and assemble the big picture. But what frustrated her was that her male colleagues argued that she couldn’t do it. But she could because she was thinking like a woman. She remained focused on the big picture, connections and relationships. As the men broke the tasks down and created pieces, she naturally thought about how the pieces fit back into the big picture.
This is a significant difference between men and women. Men break things down to increase individualism. Women join things together to create groups and big pictures. And because we can maintain a high level of detail across multiple tasks, we don’t have to sacrifice nearly as much detail as men when we create the big picture.
Think about a mother who has to get her kids out the door for school and herself off to work in the morning. She understands how all of the morning activities have to fit together. She knows which kid has to be in the bathroom first and what time they have to be out by so the next kid can use the bathroom. She listens for the shower to stop running by 7:10, so she knows if they will have time to eat breakfast. She continuously listens for noises and checks the clock to monitor their progress. She knows her kids have to be out the door no later than 7:40 in order to get to school on time. And while she is managing her kids, she is also getting herself ready for her day, taking care of the pets and keeping track of her husband and his needs.
The skills a mother uses to manage her home are directly transferrable to the workplace because workplaces function with a lot of simultaneous connected activity. This makes the workplace complex. Complexity is the opposite of Autonomy and the Achilles heel of the male-dominated workplace. Women work well with Complexity because our multi-tasking, attention to detail and group focus allows us to connect numerous pieces and parts back into the big picture. We have such a good relationship with Complexity that I think of Complexity as women’s BFF in the male-dominated workplace.
When our male colleagues want to express their Autonomy and reshape their piece, we say “No” because we know how it won’t fit back into the big picture. When a piece needs to be reshaped, we immediately think about how it connects to other pieces. We know reshaping one piece will have a ripple effect requiring other pieces to be reshaped. Our brains are capable of managing this. We practice it every morning before we even come to work.
This is why women make fantastic managers. We don’t expect all the pieces to just miraculously fit back together. We follow up to see how our employees are progressing because we need to maintain connections. When we see someone working independently, off doing his own thing, red flags go off in our minds. That person must get reconnected to the group and fit back into the big picture.
The male-dominated workplace however likes to see people working independently because it associates independence with competence. But Complexity ended that association – independence now creates inefficiency, rework and chaos resulting in crisis management. Workplaces that allow men to work autonomously will struggle and ultimately fail. Complexity makes all of us rely on our colleagues to do their job right so we can do our job. All tasks are intertwined. All tasks are connected.
Complexity now dictates that what is most important in completing a task is how efficiently all the pieces fit back together. This requires female traits.
As Complexity increases in the workplace, female traits will be needed more and more. Our superior ability to work with and manage Complexity is the single most important trait women bring to the male-dominated workplace. And the trait that gives us a significant advantage over men.
Empowered Women Know They Are the Best Managers of Complexity in the Male-Dominated Workplace.