Underlying Gender Assumption

Deborah Kolb 

Co-Director of the Program on Negotiations in the Workplace, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I was just down in New York on Tuesday while I was working with one of our clients, a large financial services company which is having a lot of trouble keeping women. What we did was try to look at some of the subtle ways in which the practices run, and how that creates differential impacts for men and women, making it difficult for women to succeed. Like us, a cultural norm that says never say no to a client, means you're working all kinds of hours. These women have children and they're in dual-career families. They just can't do it, so they leave. Guys, a lot of them have wives at home, or wives with sort of much lower level, a much more part-time job or something like that. They can manage these kinds of things, these very subtle things. How can we negotiate with senior leadership to change some of those things? That's exactly what I was working with them on. We talked about the heroes being people who never take vacations. So starting publicizing people taking vacations and making the hero as someone who takes vacations rather than not. Another thing we looked at is that there is a great pressure to sell. You eat what you kill. They actually said, "You can't eat unless you kill." This is very interesting though because it rewards only certain aspects of selling.

If somebody makes a connection and makes a match they don't get credit for that sale, only the closers get that sell. This undermines the team efforts of selling. What kind of changes could be made around that? That has a lot of implications for women, especially young women, it's hard for them to make these kinds of sales. They're young and they're more likely to make the connection, but then pass it along to somebody else. A lot of women don't like to be out there selling, they would much rather do the work. The negative consequences to the business is they often promote the rainmakers into positions of leadership and they're lousy leaders, but they're great rainmakers. What we try to do there is to say it isn't just for women; it's for the business. We call it the dual agenda, because it affects men too; and affects business effectiveness.

If you think about the eat-what-you-kill notion, it presumes that everybody's equally able to sell. It doesn't deploy people based on their talents and what they like to do. It also doesn't recognize the team aspect of this, which you'd much rather have a team aspect. Recognize that there are people who make connections, people who make matches, people who write proposals, and people who close deals. Then there's some people who are wonderful at running engagements and why should they be selling, and the rainmakers who are lousy at running engagements, running engagements; that's not good for the business.

Q: It's sort of bottom line and making the most efficient use of few resources?

A: Right. What we try to do is say, what are the implications for business effectiveness, or what implications for gender? We always try to look at both of those things. There's another thing that happens in this organization. This woman said something interesting the other day when I was down there, she's taken this workshop that I've done here. One of the things that happens is that in a lot of organizations women get asked to do these human resource things, not to be a human resource manager, not at all, but to chair the performance management task force, or go recruit at your college.

They once had one other organization where they had something called "Women and Men as Colleagues," which was a program to have men understand how women were different and the women had to keep going to the program over and over again in order to rotate for the men. They said they had enough women in each class to do it, so what happens is that those kinds of things are not rewarded. There's a norm in this particular organization that you should never say no to a developmental opportunity, and so if you say no, you're not a team player; but if you say yes to it it's a stupid thing to be spending your time doing, whereas if you are a man you have the opportunity to be the assistant to the lead clients service partner at one of the big three auto companies. This woman, she's now CEO of part of this organization, said, you know after I took that class when I took this job, no human resource responsibilities for me.

I think they start to recognize that those are gendered. We are doing a project with another organization, it's a very large multi media company and I interviewed this woman very senior and she's says to me, "I always do the girls' work." "What's the girls work, relative to all that stuff over at human resources?" "You don't get a lot of visibility for it, you know people say if you really want to get ahead you have to get rid of that stuff," however people expect her to do it. 

Q: Bringing certain invisible assumptions to the surface?

A: Absolutely, absolutely and helping people recognize the unrewarded work that women do is a large part of it.