Battle of the Sexes?: Use Technology to Help Colleagues Communicate Effectively

30 Sep

Our daily communication in the workplace is shaped by gender and stereotypes regarding how men and women should think and act.  When communicating face-to-face, pressure to conform to gender roles can lead to less open, honest, and effective communication.  If you want to ensure that your employees share their ideas and collaborate, you should promote the use of more gender-neutral forms of communication including email, internal blogs, and social media sites. This technology will allow your employees to express their ideas without being concerned that their message may not align with other people’s perceptions of how they should act.

In a study conducted in 1994, Herring found that gender roles impact how individuals communicate and express their ideas.  He found men are stereotypically more assertive, opinionated and task-oriented and use stronger language, sarcasm, and self-promotion to get their points across.  Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically more supporting of others’ ideas, tend to prevent and reduce tension, and often attend to others’ needs (1994, pp. 3-4).  So what happens when your male employees need help or want to express their uncertainty about a new business idea?  What happens when your female employees want to strongly promote their ideas or play the role of the devil’s advocate?  What happens when traditional gender roles keep people from contributing during brainstorming sessions or team projects?

Using technology to create a gender-neutral space

One of the most effective ways you can ensure that your employees share their ideas is to create a space where they can interact in a gender-neutral way.  For example, your company could create an internal blog where your employees can post their ideas and provide feedback for each other.  Alternatively, you could have brainstorming teams ask everyone to write their ideas on a slip of paper, collect them, and openly discuss all of the ideas as a group.  While these methods can help your teams generate and share ideas, they do not promote accountability or help your employees communicate effectively to resolve complex issues.  Email may be the answer because it offers a type of anonymity and provides a space between the individuals who are communicating.  This sense of separation may help your employees focus more on their ideas and message rather than worrying about how gender influences how their colleagues perceive their ideas.  For example, Bob, an assertive, self-promoting communicator may be more willing to express his feelings about a product plan in an email rather than in person because he is afraid that his colleagues would perceive him as weak.  Linda may feel more comfortable expressing her disagreement with a specific decision through email rather than in person because she does not want to appear bossy or combative.  Both Bob and Linda’s contributions are important to the business and ought to be shared.

Downsides of using technology

One of the potential downsides of promoting more gender-neutral electronic communication is that your teams may choose to use online communication when personal interaction would work more effectively.  Over-adoption of online communication could lead your teams to invest less time developing strong interpersonal relationships and therefore become more disconnected.  You can mitigate this risk by training employees how to use technology to supplement, not replace, current channels of communication.  In addition, you should invest in creating an open corporate culture where people have mutual respect for their colleagues and their ideas.  This welcoming, collaborative culture will encourage people to contribute and reduce the negative side-effects of gender stereotypes.

People are a company’s biggest asset.  In order for your businesses to succeed, find ways to promote clear, open communication and encourage employees to express their thoughts and ideas.  Technology like online blogs and email may facilitate more open and honest communication, but there are no substitutes for a corporate culture that respects individuals and values their contributions.

by Sarah McDonald

Reference:

Herring, S. (1994, June). Gender differences in computer-mediated communication: Bringing familiar baggage to the new frontier. Keynote talk at American Library Association Annual Convention. Miami, Florida .

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2 Responses to “Battle of the Sexes?: Use Technology to Help Colleagues Communicate Effectively”

  1. Jonathan Emden October 3, 2011 at 2:02 am #

    The content and subject matter of this article are excellent. There is a clear position on the influence of gender within the workplace. I appreciate that the article begins by stating this assumption before outlining methods to counteract the problem. If I were to make a suggestion, it would be to incorporate bullets and divide a couple of the paragraphs. There is a lot of great information here, and a list would help emphasize the relationship among all of your suggestions. Overall, this is an effective article on a timely issue.

    • Sarah McDonald October 18, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

      Jonathan,

      Thank you for your suggestions. I agree that a bulleted list would help highlight the most important information and make it easier for readers to pick up on the main points. Thank you for your feedback.

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