Society has come a long way in terms of improving gender equality. Yet in the shadow of this progress, enduring stereotypes still influence much of people’s everyday thinking – whether they realize it or not. In the workplace, one familiar challenge is that people tend to treat conflict among women differently than conflict among men, viewing it as particularly pernicious – rather than a natural part of work life.
In fact, my research shows that conflict among women is interpreted more negatively by others than conflict among men, perhaps because it violates stereotypes that prescribe how women should behave. For example, a common stereotype for women is that they should be warm and nurturing, whereas men are expected to be more independent and assertive. Women who exhibit behavior commonly associated with men are often painted as cold and unlikable. Competitiveness and conflict between men is often dismissed as ‘boys being boys,’ but similar behavior among women is often seen as dysfunctional and disruptive. Moreover, women are often expected to help one another out at work, for the sake of sisterhood.
Additionally, due to damaging “queen bee” and “mean girl” stereotypes about women’s same-sex relationships, colleagues may be more likely to perceive conflict among women as a personal issue associated with mutual disliking or jealousy, rather than one stemming from professional performance or the task at hand. I am currently working on research that supports this notion. This poses a problem when people conclude that women inherently have difficulty working with one another, or that women are somehow less capable of dealing with the challenges of organizational life. A side effect of this is potential reinforcement of the idea that women are not as effective in leadership positions as men because they lack the skills to manage and ‘play nice’ with others.
To address this issue head-on, here are three steps managers can take:
Become more aware of gender stereotypes and the role they play in perceptions of conflict. Do a little digging to accurately identify the key factors causing the issue rather than falling victim to stereotypes and biases.
Help employees recognize that not all conflict at work is bad. In fact, constructive conflict that focuses on the business or task at hand can actually improve performance and problem solving quality. When employees challenge the assumption that conflict equals strife, this allows reasonable conflict to become normalized, which should equalize perceptions of gendered conflict.
Facilitate opportunities for conflict resolution training and role-play that offer employees concrete ways to deal with conflict. Note that these strategies should not differ according to gender. If they did, this would serve to highlight gender stereotypes and exacerbate the problem.
It is important to remember that workplace conflict is a natural part of organizational life, regardless of the gender of those involved. It can even be healthy when employees have the skills to handle it successfully. With this in mind, employees can focus more on what brings them together rather than what separates them.
Dr. Leah Sheppard is an assistant professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems and Entrepreneurship at the Washington State University Carson College of Business in Pullman.