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Are women and men equal? Are they the same?

You probably have a ready, clear answer to those questions, when presented so starkly. But consultant Tom Tonkin says that, as issues arise in the rush of the daily and weekly grind, we often confuse equality of men and women with sameness. That can create confusion and division, undermining our collegial efforts. It therefore is important – even if it may seem trite – to state that men and women are equal, but not the same.

“In the case of gender equality, we are talking about men and women being identical in value. Yet, it is fair to say that men and women are not the same, identical. We certainly are not physically the same. We are not emotionally the same and many other areas. We are different, but we are equal in value,” he writes on the CornerstoneOnDemand website.

The two terms – equality and sameness – can get intermingled in conversations. Mr. Tonkin points out that when women hear men say that women are not the same, they most likely hear that they are not equal – and thus less valued. Men hear from women that they want to be treated as equal and view that as an argument that they are the same.

Worse, women believe that they need to be the same to compete with men. “They start to behave in unnatural ways (un-feminine or more masculine) to keep up with men. Some male leaders support this action as it is easier to deal with another person, male or female, that is similar to them. After all, we like to hang out with people that are the same as we are. Again, this sends out mixed signals to those who are trying to ‘play the game,'” he says.

But there’s a corollary he doesn’t explore. Too often, equal is not equal, as the strengths of individual women are undervalued – by others and by them. We need a deeper understanding of our misconceptions.

Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic details how this works to the advantage of men in his book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? “When men are considered for leadership positions, the same traits that predict their downfall are commonly mistaken – even celebrated – as a sign of leadership potential or talent,” he says.

Recent research intriguingly has found that women and men view competition differently. Selin Kesebir, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School, reports in Harvard Business Review that a study she and colleagues conducted found that, in a sample of 2,331 people, 63 per cent of the women were less convinced than the average man that competition boosts performance, builds character and leads to innovative solutions. Negative beliefs about competition, interestingly, were about the same between genders. But men see more of an upside to competition than women. Much of modern management, of course, is based on the benefits of competition, putting the more doubting gender at a disadvantage.

Another recent study found a gender gap in self-promotion. Job applications, job interviews and performance reviews are just some of the critical career areas where this can arise. Christine Exley, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Judd Kessler, an associate professor of business economics at the Wharton School, found in a series of experiments that women rate their performance less favourably than equally performing men.

“This gender gap in self-promotion is notably persistent,” they state. “ … Because of the prevalence of self-promotion opportunities, this self-promotion gap may contribute to the persistent gender gap in education and labour market outcomes.” So equal in ability but because of differences in perception not equal in outcomes.

Men and women have to face up to these differences. And that can be difficult for men as it can seem they are under siege. Diversity consultant Lily Zheng says it’s important that men embrace the fact that diversity and inclusion efforts need their help. The starting point is a belief in equality.

In Harvard Business Review she says that, when working with straight male leaders, she will tell them: “I know you care about equality in your organization. And being a straight white man gives you enormous insight and expertise into how your organization works for other people like you. It’s your job as a leader to figure out what it’s like for other people and make sure everyone has a positive experience.”

That means understanding we are not all the same and considering where those differences can be leading us to undervalue what women bring to the leadership table.


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