If you have never worked in a large office, you only have to watch a few episodes of Mad Men to see the dynamic between men and women in the workplace. Even though the TV programme is set in the 1960s and 1970s, I found several parallels with our modern day behaviour.
The main characters of the show are strong, white men trying to dominate the emerging advertisement industry. They are stylish, brash, dominating and eager to erase the competition. Some of their tactics are ruthless in getting what they want. They’re willing to lie, cheat and out-manoeuvre any other of the men at their level of the company hierarchy, to get to the top. That’s only the internal politics and when it comes to competing with other advertisement agencies, they’re united and unbeatable.
Where are the women in all of this? They are the secretaries, the wives, the typists and often sleep their way up to the top if they are cunning enough. The women in the show display an icy comradery. They are very much at the bottom of the food chain or on the outskirts. Peggy, the most talented, is recognised for her artistic flair but is never really taken seriously. Her colleague and competitor, Joan, uses her sexuality to make it to partner, having started out as a typist. It’s all one big performance to steer their way through the politics of human behaviour.
As a conflict style, competition and dominance can be useful. The risk is, however, that you damage your relationship with the other person if you use aggression to settle a dispute. It’s used a lot to resolve legal disputes because our legal system offers win/lose solutions. A court judgment means one person must lose.
Competition is traditionally associated with male behaviour. If two men were in competition for a lady’s affection, they could challenge each other to a dual or more obviously, team sports are an everyday example of healthy male competition. Women also participate in team sports but crucially, the way we react to the competing team differs between the two genders.
Women Hold A Grudge
One study revealed that across forty-four countries and four types of team sports played by both genders, men were much more aggressive and competitive. Despite this finding, men were much more likely than women to make peace with their competitors. They do this by patting each other’s back, shaking hands or hugging. Women displayed little of the physical contact we use to make peace. This suggests that men view relationships very differently to women, especially after conflict.
The Male Warrior
What’s interesting about the study is the dynamic of the group. In the office for example, men may compete for better salary, a promotion or to lead a particular project. They may be extremely ruthless about this but the “male warrior hypothesis” limits this to the way men behave within a group. They compete with each other for resources available to that group, such as female mates or something else that will satisfy their needs. As a group, they need to resolve internal conflict quickly and foster cooperation. If they can’t cooperate, they can’t defend the collective against another, outside group. This is necessary to maintain access to females and to gain or hold territory and other benefits. It’s primal but it makes sense from a survival perspective.
This theory also proposes that women are only cooperative within their family groups or close friends because their concern is to care for their off-spring and they need a network to do this. There is no need to cooperate across the group in general as they won’t be doing the fighting.
Men may engage in highly aggressive behaviour within a group which threatens relationships, but they are quick to make friends with their competitors. This preserves the group’s cohesion and protects it from the threat of inter-group conflict.
In the Workplace
When men and women enter the workplace as managers, there is little difference between their conflict resolution technique. They are both more likely to use more competitive and dominating styles. Both genders are also more likely to accommodate managers during a conflict. In their home environment, things changed. Both male and female managers became more collaborative although men are slightly more competitive.
Power structures, setting and institutional roles are more likely to be influential within the workplace than gender.
What Does This Mean For Women And Men in Conflict?
Our gender does not always dictate how we respond to conflict. Different levels of skill, managerial style and personality type influence the way we interact with people. I have met several men who are unable to assert their authority or respond to conflict competitively. I have also met several women who are more than willing to cooperate with other women within an organisation despite competitive elements.
These findings are to be taken as general observations. They do however, give insight into how men and women may be disadvantaged in the workplace because of the hierarchy and traditional roles afforded to men and women within a conflict context. Here are some of them:
- Timid, non-competitive men who are extremely talented and prefer a collaborative approach may be overlooked for managerial positions;
- Men who are untalented but are dominating and over-confident may be seen as a threat. Conflict is usually avoided with these types of characters which allows them to progress up the hierarchy. They do not necessarily contribute to the business meaningfully, but they are able to navigate the hierarchy;
- Women, within the competitive environment, do not support other women. If they do value relationships, they may not wish to compete for a promotion if they believe they have something to lose in consequence;
- This may explain why women are less likely to negotiate within the workplace. Not only are women negotiators less likable (according to studies) but conflict also could result in the loss of valuable female relationships;
- Group dynamics, setting and power structures are more likely to influence which conflict resolution style we choose. This is not always going to be effective in all situations and with all people.
What it really shows is that employers, managers and other employees should be aware of their conflict styles within a group context. It is much more about that than gender. Women in particular, would be better served by supporting each other, irrespective of the competition that the workplace can generate. At the very least, we shouldn’t be put off by competition for the fear of losing female allies. Communicating constructively and building trust can help to repair any perceived damage that ‘winning’ can do. Men (in general) aren’t scared of it, and neither should women be.
In an ideal world, employers would strive to create a working environment that is collaborative, transparent and respectful. One in which fairness, integrity and relationships are important. People would be promoted solely on the basis of their skills and capabilities instead of their ability to dominate. Until then, becoming aware of power structures, gender stereotypes and our own default conflict resolution style, will help us to have more satisfying careers and relationships. That applies to you whether you are a man, woman or any other gender that you identify with.
Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or two !