The different ways in which our culture views men and women in the workplace is, put simply, pretty complicated. A recent study conducted by Pew Research Center examined Americans’ views on gender differences, looking at everything from how men and women are perceived to be different in society and, perhaps more importantly, why. And what they found will likely drive you batty: While women are more likely to credit gender differences to “societal expectations,” men are more likely to say “biological differences” are to blame.
A majority of Americans are in agreement that men and women are different when it comes to things like how we express emotion, how we parent, and our personal hobbies and interests. This disparity in nature (“biological differences”) versus nurture (“societal expectations”) comes heavily into play when Americans are asked about men and women in the workplace. While a majority of all people (63 percent) say men and women are good at similar things at work, those who say they are good at different things (37 percent) are in stark disagreement as to why.
The study did not include questions specific to nonbinary or transgender individuals. However, it’s important to note that societal ideas on gender, from both a nature and a nurture perspective, most certainly affect those who are not cis men and cis women both uniquely and disproportionately.
Of the 35 percent of women who say that men and women excel at different things at work, 65 percent attribute those differences to societal pressure. Of the 38 percent of men who also believe men and women excel differently in the workplace, 61 percent attribute those differences to biology. That works out be more than one in five men who think men and women are good at different things at work because of “biological differences.”
A separate, more open-ended question the Pew Center asked regarding societally valued traits provides a unique perspective on these perceived gender differences in the workplace. Overall, people were more likely to say the traits society values highly in women are physical attractiveness (35 percent) or nurturing and empathy (30 percent). For men, the traits were significantly different: “Honesty and morality” as well as “professional or financial success” were the top traits people said society valued most in men. Leadership, strength, and work ethic were also among the most cited answer. “Far fewer cite these as examples of what society values most in women,” Pew’s report states.
Recent studies regarding gender roles in the workplace reinforce these results from Pew’s research. A December study out of the University of Delaware found that women are given less credit in the workplace even when expressing similar ideas or speaking out as much as men. Another study from the Harvard Business Review found that while men and women act the same at work, they are treated differently.
Once more for the people in the back and/or the one-in-five men who still want to cry “biology”: “Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”
For women to succeed in the workplace, we need to be in agreement on how they are capable of succeeding. To be clear, the present gender disparity in the workplace (from women’s lack of representation in leadership roles to the wage gap) speaks more to the ways in which our society believes women can succeed rather than what women are actually capable of.
And if you’re curious how your own ideas about gender compare to these results, you can take Pew Research Center’s gender issues quiz to see how your answers differ from or align with your fellow Americans.