Interview with Peter – Women and Men in the Corporate World – Different Experiences?

posted February 27th, 2014 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

Today’s post is the first of three excerpts from my interview with “Peter” a very successful and senior lawyer at one of Canada’s major law firms.  I was thrilled he agreed to be interviewed. I hope you enjoy reading what he has to say and as usual your comments are most welcome!!

I asked Peter to describe his impression of the difference between the experience of a man and woman in the corporate world.


Peter says: “Let’s look at this first of all from where people have come from and also from a generational perspective.  The answer is very different for my peers than for the young lawyers and business people that I see coming into the work force now who are really my kids’ age, so just to deal with that first.  At the entry level, young men and women in their 20’s are coming in with very similar experiences because they’ve been through school together, they’ve been through university together, and they’ve grown up in an environment where the expectation is much more focused on equality and the interchangeability of males and females.  Of course, they’ve got their futures ahead of them and the big issue facing them all is the biological clock and when are the women going to have babies.  They’re looking forward at their careers but looking back at their experiences. Their experiences have been, in a sense, quite similar and coming out of universities now as compared to twenty or thirty years ago, the graduating classes are far more balanced.  In fact, in a number of areas, there are more women than men in those graduating classes; in business school, for example where it used to be predominantly men.


“If we look at my generation, the experience has been very different because, first of all, when I look back at law school and business school, the business school class that I remember was predominantly men.  There were some women but they had the experience of being in a minority and the women in my law school class were also in a minority, a large number of them came into the law firms and of course, they all articled together and worked together and then women started to drop off because they were going on maternity leave.  That experience is the fundamental difference, which I see in the law firm and to some extent in the business world generally as well, that gives women another dimension.  First of all, they have that experience outside the profession, outside their career track whereas more often than not men are following the same path right through and in a profession…and again especially in the early years…where cumulative experience becomes something that’s much more of a focus.  For example, law firms tend to evaluate associates for partnership after a certain number of years from graduation and it becomes a major difference in experience when you’re looking at a sixth, seventh or eighth year male lawyer who’s been practicing for six, seven, or eight years and you look at a female lawyer who has been, let’s say, on two maternity leaves and has only been practicing for a percentage of that same time period and that makes a big difference as far as experience is concerned.


Perhaps another way to approach your question, and maybe I’m delving into other questions here…but another aspect is the whole emotional aspect, and as a general matter it’s a huge generalization, but women tend to have, on average, higher emotional intelligence levels and so their experience is often defined in a different way than a man’s experience.  Let’s take the simple example of a meeting and a spectrum of 1 to 10 of emotional sensitivity or emotional intelligence or empathy. Somebody on the very extreme low end of the scale will experience that meeting as a set or sequence of issues, discussion items, facts, decisions and tasks and somebody at the other end of the spectrum will experience it quite differently.  They’ll experience it as a set of interactions and where those interactions lead, how they make different people feel, and how some people came up feeling like winners or losers, or happy or frustrated or angry etc.  Between the bookends and along the spectrum, you’ve got a whole range of different experiences.


“If you aggregate that and your question was differences in women’s and men’s experience in the working world, and if day after day you’re going through meetings like that and you’re having the experience of somebody who, on average, has got high emotional intelligence, your experience of the business world is going to be very different. You’re going to have a totally different world view, a totally different set of emotional and intellectual experiences than somebody who’s coming at things with zero EQ.  That’s perhaps another way of looking at this.”


I asked Peter because he didn’t say it explicitly whether he meant men tended to be on the lower and women on the higher end of the EQ scale in general and he says: “I meant to make that explicit.  Absolutely!  Now, there are going to be exceptions in both cases but, in general, that’s certainly been my experience at all levels, including generational levels, in different walks of life, in different professions, and in different business occupations.  Again, speaking of the legal area, emotional intelligence is very important because a lot of what we do is about the process. Being able to balance the process objectives with the substantive objectives is tremendously important and women come at this with a broader perspective, in some senses. Just to digress for a moment and give you a sense of my own prejudices, I believe that in any area, and particularly in law which is the field I know best, being a generalist gives you an advantage, because knowing more and approaching any situation from a broader perspective is generally an advantage, bearing in mind there are certain areas where you need to have strong specialized skills.


“A good lawyer is not like a good plumber or any other good technician, a good lawyer has to bring an understanding of psychology and of…as far as communication is concerned…of literature and of history and of sociology, group situations, anthropology, and so on and so forth to the practice of law.  How does this apply to gender?  In many senses, with a lot of those disciplines women come at them…obviously there are many men who’ve studied in these different areas too…but women come at situations with an intuitive understanding on average that is better…that’s broader…broader in my opinion is better…than men and so that can be very effective.  Again, these are broad generalizations and at the individual level there are going to be plenty of exceptions to that, but that’s how I’d respond to your question.”


I asked Peter whether he thought women face obstacles, difficulties and road blocks, in the corporate world or the world of work, which are different from those faced by men and, if so, what they are. He says: “One that immediately comes to mind…and this is an evolving area…so the answer would have been quite different a decade or two ago and hopefully will be quite different in a decade or two’s time but at this point in time, coming back to my answer to the first question, child-bearing. I hate to call it an obstacle but it’s a phenomenon that creates obstacles for a woman on a career track in some professions and occupations more so than in others.  More so in those situations where cumulative experience and levels of seniority are more of a focus than in situations which are more fluid and someone can move in and out because that experience of being at home and breaking potentially for a period of time with the corporate world is enriching and gives the person an advantage.  Anyway, in some senses there are advantages with this obstacle as well.


“Secondly, we’re talking about several thousand years of cumulative social experience and attitude that has built up in our civilization, western civilization and other civilizations perhaps even moreso, where women have been relegated to certain roles and of course over the past century we’ve seen huge changes to that but we’re still informed by that long, long history and in some places and some parts of the world and even some communities within the most advanced countries, we have this tension between tradition and progress, if you like, or tradition and openness to change.


“The second issue is what I call attitudinal and growing out of that and maybe a third more specific obstacle is fear.  Fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of threat, being threatened.  Men who have been used to functioning in a primarily male environment, be it in the work world or in the sports or social world whatever, may feel varying levels of discomfort with being around women in either a peer-to-peer relationship or a superior/subordinate relationship, one way or the other, supervising younger women, junior women, or reporting to a more senior woman which is a little bit different to the second general social attitudinal issue.  It’s more of an emotional and behavioural issue that men feel in different degrees ranging probably from someone where it might be very conscious and explicit and someone where it might be unconscious, subconscious, whatever, and in others it might be non-existent.  Those would be the first obstacles which come to mind.


“Coming out of our previous discussion about different approaches, if you’ve got…forget about gender…but if you’ve got a woman, or anybody, who takes a more empathetic approach, to a meeting or to a situation, and you’ve got somebody else who’s much more task-oriented, there can often be tensions and that might also be an obstacle because the woman might be approaching the situation from a different point of view.  Obviously, that doesn’t just apply to women and men, it applies to different types of people and how they come at things but you could generalize and say that women who might, in general, be more comfortable with, a compromising approach might run up against in certain adversarial contexts, litigation for example, might find that an obstacle if the predominant mode of dealing and the people they’re dealing with on the other side, are not engaging in the same way and are engaging in power plays and adversarial struggle.  Those are some of the things that come to my mind as far as obstacles are concerned.”


What Strikes Me?

The experience of men and women is in part a reflection of the generation which they are part of

The big issue facing women is the biological clock

Bearing children gives women another dimension

The number of years a woman takes off for maternity leaves impacts her cumulative work experience which may impact the evaluation of her readiness for promotion

In general, women have higher EQ levels than men which makes their experience of the workplace different

Being a generalist gives you an advantage

In general, approaching any situation from a broader perspective is an advantage

Women come at a variety of situations with a broader perspective and broader is better

Childbearing creates obstacles for a woman on a career track in some professions and occupations more than in others

Men who have been used to functioning in a primarily male environment may feel varying levels of discomfort being around women in either a peer-to-peer relationship or a superior/subordinate relationship

A woman might approach a situation from a different point of view which can create an obstacle in itself

There are advantages to breaking away from the corporate world for a period of time in terms of broadening one’s perspective

Motherhood is an enriching experience and gives a women an advantage in the corporate world

There is a tension between tradition and progress or openness to change which is informed by the history of western civilization

Attitudes and fear are potential obstacles to strong male/female relationships in the workplace


What Strikes You?

Please comment.


Be Sociable, Share!

Write a comment

You need to login to post comments!