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The Problem with Saying Women Are Better At…
Posted 01.04.17
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Jonathan A. Segal
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I am pleased to share my recent post to Philadelphia Business Journal.

A recent study at Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health concluded that hospitalized patients treated by female physicians show lower mortality and readmission rates.

This study is getting a lot of media attention, and in many cases, the conclusions drawn go beyond the findings of the study.

Take, for example, the NPR headline: “Patients treated by Female Doctors Fare Better Than Those Treated By Men.” NPR is but one example. Here’s one more.

On a national TV program, the question was asked: who makes better doctors, women or men? Citing the report, the on-air talent said “women.”

But it is not just about doctors. The internet is replete with articles that report on studies that ask if or conclude that women are better leaders than men.

I understand why the Harvard study is vitally important. Women still face very real bias in medicine (actually, everywhere), and we need to increase our focus on the contributions of women that are often under-appreciated and profoundly unrecognized to combat that bias (including pay to which I will return).

But would we ever ask: who makes better doctors, white people or people of color? Hispanics or African Americans?

Of course not! But why is it okay with gender? Well, it’s not.

It’s no more okay than the surveys that ask would you rather work for a male or female boss? In some cases, the majority answer “men.”

Would we ever ask if you want to work for a person who is white or a person of color? The question indulges in bigotry and so does the question on gender. If someone want to choose the gender of their boss, let them start their own business and work for themselves.

We need to sell the benefits that go with diversity to increase support for smashing conscious bias and bringing to conscious awareness implicit bias. Stated otherwise, if we want to cream the crop, and who doesn’t, we need to harness the talent women bring to the table and not nearly enough is done to do just that.

But we need to be careful not to stereotype in our efforts to eradicate bias and increase inclusion. There is no such thing as “benign” stereotyping and here’s why.

First, the stereotyping creates higher expectations for its intended beneficiaries. It is not enough for women to be competent doctors, leaders, etc. No, they must reach our inflated expectations.

Let me give you an example. Let’s assume that the average male is a “5” on a scale of “1” to “9” in terms of core competencies. If we assume women are stronger, we may expect a “7.”

Now, we interview a woman who is a “6” and a man who is a “5.” She is the stronger candidate but he may appear better because he meets our expectations and she does not meet our inflated expectations.

Second, the stereotyping may result in discrimination against men of talent. This is both a talent and a legal issue. Under the law, gender bias knows no gender.

Finally, by focusing on gender, we don’t get at the root cause of what makes someone more effective. Our focus should be on competencies.

For example, in both leadership and medicine, strong communication skills are critical. That explains, in part, the results of the Harvard study.
So our focus should be on the communication and other skills that have resulted in women outperforming men. And, then we should make sure that, when we, hire, evaluate, promote and pay, we consider those key skills.

When we focus on competencies, as we should, it very well may mean that more women than men will thrive but we are recognizing a core skill and not unwittingly engaging in gender bias. In medicine, the failure to understand the difference literally can have life and death consequences.

Lost in the headlines beyond which many do not go is another key finding. The story within the story is that, while the women performed better than men in this study, they still made materially less money.

The gender pay gap is alive and well in medicine and virtually every aspect of corporate America. Of course, there are legal reasons to address it.

But the business imperative is just as great. Imagine if those gifted doctors who are women leave the profession out of frustration for being paid less, even where they not just meet but exceed the performance of their male peers? That, too, is a life and death issue, literally.

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About Jonathan A. Segal
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Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment Group. He is also the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute. The Duane Morris Institute provides training for human resource professionals, in-house counsel, and other leaders at client sites and by way of webinar on myriad employment, leadership labor, benefits and immigration topics. Jonathan has served intermittently as a consultant to the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. for more than 20 years, providing training on employment issues to federal judges around the country. Jonathan also has provided training on harassment on behalf of the EEOC as well as providing training on diversity to members of the United States intelligence agencies. Jonathan is also frequently a featured speaker at national, state and local human resource, business and legal conferences, including conferences sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Business and Industry. Jonathan’s practice focuses on maximizing compliance and minimizing legal risk. Jonathan’s particular areas of emphasis include: equal employment opportunity in general and gender equality in particular: social media; wage and hour; performance management; talent acquisition; harassment prevention and correction; and non-competes and other ways to protect your business. You can find him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law .