Do you think men are from Mars and women are from Venus, even in the office? Or do you think both sexes approach their jobs—including management jobs—the same way, and any differences have to do with their skill sets, not gender?
Whether differences between the sexes are real, perceived or rooted in personal bias, bring up the subject of whether working for a female boss is different from working for a male boss, and you’re guaranteed a spirited debate.
Does it matter who you work for? Maybe not. But plenty of studies say gender can affect how a boss or co-worker makes choices and interacts with employees. That means learning about biological and sociological differences might help you get along better with everyone—which could make you known as an adaptable employee.
At the same time, demonstrating you’re adept to the gender roles of 2013 instead of 1953 (you know, like never making a snarky comment about the female boss having a male secretary) will make you look professional.
Here are four ways to make sure you’re gender savvy at work:
1. When you make small talk, don’t revert to gender stereotypes.
Yes, most men like sports. Sure, plenty of women like to cook and bake. But if your female boss is a huge Red Sox fan, don’t ask her what she plans to prepare for the picnic potluck. Talk about batting averages instead. Once you know a boss’s favorite team, keep an eye on sports websites so you have something to say.
2. Use each sex’s communication style to your advantage.
Many recent studies highlight the different ways men and women communicate. Whether you agree or not, reading about these theories will help you build your skill arsenal.
Sophie Hahn and Anne Litwin published a great article that listed gender perceptions in the workplace. Among those they highlighted were, when it comes to problem solving, women are more intuitive (they trust their instincts first), and men are more linear (they won’t trust intuition until someone presents proof). When there’s a conflict at work, women seek to create harmony, whereas men accept conflict as normal.
Do those theories sound familiar to you? If so, how can you use that knowledge to be a more valuable and helpful worker?
3. Be accommodating and polite when a new baby arrives.
If your boss is pregnant, be kind and supportive during the pregnancy, and make sure you don’t say anything that suggests her maternity leave is a vacation or time off. When she returns, ask how the family is doing. Do the same for a man returning from paternity leave. The key is to appear thoughtful and helpful, but never nosy.
Never ask someone with twins whether they used fertility drugs. Don’t ask for details about an adopted child’s “background.” If the new baby is joining a family with two mommies or daddies, don’t ask “Which one of you contributed the …”
You’d think it would be unnecessary to list these don’ts, but amazingly, people say this stuff all the time.
All you ever need to say to a boss or colleague is, “Congratulations! How wonderful for your family.”
4. Never assume anyone’s abilities.
Have you ever seen someone make this mistake before: “Wow, Susan, I never would have guessed you knew code, because … uh …”?
Statistically speaking women are less likely to be computer programmers, but making assumptions about people’s abilities won’t win you any love in the office.
Robbie Abed is a technologist and career aficionado. His mission is to help talented people find jobs through his book “Fire Me, I Beg You” and personal blog. This article first appeared on Brazen Life, a career blog for young professionals.