The Promise and Challenge of Mixed-Gender Teams

research recently published by MIT economists. In fact, the gender-balanced offices in the study produced 41 percent more revenue than single-sex workplaces.

Why Higher Performance?

The key to higher performance in this study is that the more highly productive teams were gender balanced. In other words, roughly equal numbers of women and men made up the teams rather than only token representatives. What might account for this higher performance?
  1. More voice for everyone. When there are roughly equal numbers of women and men on a team, both women and men will be more likely to get their ideas heard and influence the culture of the team.
  2. More perspectives. A diversity of perspectives is bound to result in better decisions and solutions, and help avoid groupthink. A recent Time magazine story by Sallie Krawcheck shows what can result from the absence of diversity in the workplace. Krawcheck tells her story of being fired from her position running Smith Barney at Citi during the financial crisis. The only woman in senior leadership at Citi, she was fired for diverging from the groupthink of the financial industry and daring to suggest that clients should be partly reimbursed for the losses caused by selling them high-risk products. Before she was fired, she would not have said that her approach to decision making was related to her gender. After she was fired, Krawcheck’s research helped her understand that women tend to be more risk averse and client-relationship focused—a value that the financial industry needed. The gender-balanced teams in the MIT study were probably able to leverage a diversity of perspectives and, therefore, showed superior results.
  3. More skills. A broader range of skills and experience is available in diverse teams, which could contribute to better results.

Why Less Happiness?

When the MIT research was released, a reporter from the Boston Globe called me and said, “I’m surprised! This study shows higher levels of trust, cooperation, and enjoyment of the workplace in single-sex offices. Shouldn’t this ‘social capital’ translate into higher productivity?” But it doesn’t. Feeling happier and more comfortable in single-sex offices does not produce higher performance. Working in gender-balanced teams produced more revenue but less enjoyment, or less happiness, in the workplace. “I’m not surprised,” I told her. And here’s why:
  1. Gender is a cultural difference, and communicating across cultural differences is not easy. Cross-cultural interactions take effort and are fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding. We also now understand that gender is a continuum with more than two variations on gender shaping our perspectives—and creating even more opportunities for misunderstanding.
  2. History can shape our interactions. Men often say they feel they have to “walk on eggshells” around women colleagues out of fear of saying something offensive. Women often say they feel they have to be more assertive than is comfortable for them to get their ideas heard and are then told they are hard to work with. This view that working with gender diversity takes more effort was recently confirmed by a male client who proudly described the gender-balanced team he had led for a state-wide change effort. He said, “We accomplished amazing things together because we were able to leverage our differences.” Then he said, “By the end we were all exhausted by the effort it took to work together—but it was worth it.”
Do you have the skills to work cross-culturally? It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.]]>

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