Is the male ego really such a delicate creature?
Chatting with my friend William recently, he told me a story of how he’d moved into his very own office at work. He was enjoying a nice little set-up: he could close the door if he wanted to, get work done without distractions, he had plenty of room to spread out and a nice view of the city.
He explained it was only a temporary thing. The business is moving buildings soon and when that happens, he’ll be back in the cubicle mosh pit.
But one by one, all the males who were senior to him, and still slumming it in open plan, had come in to remind him his little own-office perk was only temporary, and not to get used to it. They couldn’t stand the fact William had something they didn’t have.
We put this response down to being an ego thing. Their male pride had been bruised by the fact some young upstart had garnered something they didn’t have. It obviously ruffled their peacock feathers.
So we got to talking about why it was that only the blokes had come by to put him back in his place. The women obviously didn’t feel threatened.
We came up with a theory: ego clashes occur far more frequently between people of the same gender, and seldom between people of different genders.
I put this to Dr Malcolm Johnson, head of research and thought leadership at the Australian Institute of Management.
He says gender and ego is a complex area. “There are a lot of unconscious biases at play. Men have more ego displays. But they tend to see themselves as jocular competitors, although their competitive interactions are more overt and obvious.”
According to Johnson, the unconscious bias that happens between women occurs in a completely different way. “Women look at each other as competitors, and tend to look for approval from men. There’s lots of research that backs this up. There tends to be internecine warfare between women.” You can read some of that research here, here, and here.
Johnson says if it had been a woman rather than William that had been given the office, the outcome would have been rather different.
“This would actually be less of an issue for men than it would be for women. And once they had moved into a new building the issue would have disappeared; because it’s a temporary situation, the male ego would not be too bruised. But it would have caused real difficulties between women if a female had been given the office. Although men are more obvious in their ego displays, they are actually more supportive of each other than women tend to be.”
Johnson says women don’t support each other because they see other women as competitors. “But all this happens at an unconscious level,” he says.
He also says men understand the status plays that happen between them. “The top dog will always be the top dog, but there tends to be more power-sharing between men. But that doesn’t happen so much with women in senior roles.”
From an organisational perspective, Johnson says businesses can set up a culture that aggravates unconscious bias. “A more sophisticated management team will set up norms that ensure the best possible relationship between genders and all cultures. The idea is to set up common rules of engagement.”
Johnson’s research collaborator is Professor Charmine Hartel. They are working together to identify best practices that facilitate positive workplaces, with gender equity a key consideration.
Here are Hartel’s principles for creating a positive workplace:
- Build a respectful, inclusive and psychologically safe work environment for all employees.
- Ensure transparent decision-making that is interactionally, procedurally and distributively just.
- Support women and minorities to develop positive networks with senior members of staff in the workplace and in their profession.
- Support women and minorities to become active members of the peak bodies in their profession.
- Strive for a diverse workforce with good representation of women and minorities, especially in senior roles.
- Recruit diverse employees and include in performance management discussions on supporting diversity.
- Ensure that resources which are limited are distributed in fair and transparent ways.
- Have a clear diversity policy statement, and monitor the organisational environment to ensure it has a positive diversity climate.
One final thought, says Johnson, is that terms of engagement in an organisation should embody principles that encourage positive interaction around “sacrosanct” beliefs and values.
“When these are not observed, prompt interdiction from management should address any form of inequity emerging, be it procedural inequity through to covert bullying behaviours, including those between members of the same gender,” he says.
What do you think? For which gender is ego the bigger issue?