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If Genders Behave Differently, Why Expect Equal Outcomes?

In my experience in business, men make the best employees.

So do women.

That doesn’t mean that men and women necessarily make exactly the same kind of employees on average. But then, I don’t hire average employees. I hire individuals, each of whom has strengths and weaknesses, skills and gaps to be filled, preferences and aversions. Like many other managers, I find it most effective to work with an individual to shape her career or his job in directions that best suit each employee.

A recent story in The New York Times asserts that women make “better” decisions than men under stress. The opinion piece amalgamates multiple studies while presupposing that small and consistent gains are more valuable than large but less predictable or reliable gains. Very often, this is true, but it depends on specific circumstances and goals.

During its long period of decline in the 1990s, Apple aimed for small, incremental improvements in its products, and nearly drowned in a Windows tidal wave. But it was the return of Steve Jobs and his “bet the company” approach in creating the iPod, the iTunes Store, the iPad and especially the iPhone that not only ensured Apple’s survival but has made it the world’s most valuable company.

Was mere survival Apple’s goal? Apple shareholders could have put their money into any of thousands of companies whose survival was a safer bet than Apple’s at the turn of the millennium. Jobs’ mission was to vastly inflate the ceiling on Apple’s potential and then help the company reach it.

The Times article reaches the conclusion that women, as more conservative and empathetic decision-makers when stressed, are often only asked to lead when things are going wrong already, citing Mary Barra of General Motors and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo as examples. “If more women were key decision makers, perhaps organizations could respond effectively to small stresses, rather than letting them escalate into huge ones,” the article suggests. But this conclusion springs from focusing on one small facet of a much larger situation - one in which legislation and policy alone cannot determine the outcome.

In the 22 years since I started my firm, I have had nine employees with young children at home. All four of the women took extended leave when their children were born, and then asked for reduced schedules when they returned to work, which I happily accommodated. None of the five men took more than a couple of weeks off after the birth of a child, and none of them asked to work fewer than five days a week, though they do regularly adjust their hours to meet family requirements at home. These requests I also cheerfully oblige. I am perfectly willing to treat the men the same way I treat the women, or vice versa, if they want. So far, however, they have not asked to be treated the same way.

My goal is to be as fair and considerate as possible to everyone, male or female. Treating people fairly does not mean treating them equally. If I have two equally skilled employees doing the same type of work, but one does significantly more of that work than the other, then I am going to pay more to the employee who produces more work. The other employee presumably values schedule flexibility more highly than the difference in short-term compensation.

Similarly, all else being equal, the employee who spends more time at work is likely to be ready for advancement sooner than one of equal talent who works reduced hours. I have no choice but to recognize that fact, yet I want to avoid creating a “mommy track” in which people who take time to attend to their families are prevented from taking on significant challenges and building their skills. I try to limit the long-term career impact of these temporary variations in work-life balance as much as I can, but that does not mean I can eliminate all the effects, or that I should.

Much attention is paid these days to the lack of statistically equal outcomes in corporate America when measured along gender lines. Women continue to be underrepresented at the uppermost levels of management in big corporations, though the presence of a woman in such a position is no longer itself newsworthy. But this is not a problem that can be solved by forcing the hand of either men or women, assuming that it is a problem in the first place.

Men and women, in the aggregate, do make different choices. Whether that is because of innate biology or external sociology seems irrelevant to me. The purpose of equal opportunity is not to encourage, let alone mandate, perfectly equal outcomes. It is to afford the individual men and individual women that we hire the same broad range of options. So far it has not led to similar outcomes, at my firm or more broadly. If women and men make different choices, the best we can do is to empower these decisions and respect them once they are made.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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