Saturday, November 29, 2008

WorkTech 08: How Gender will reshape the Workplace

A changing workplace ...

"For user experience researchers, and many others, it’s all about the technology. The future of work involves a lot of beautifully designed devices, wireless communication and sophisticated, technologically-mediated multitasking. It’s a world where technology makes monkeys – or geniuses - of us all, and where damaging, unnecessary and antiquated practices such as gender discrimination have ceased to be in any way relevant.

Hooray for that. But have we missed a trick? Business psychologist, Professor Adrian Furnham, speaking recently at the WorkTech 08 conference at the British Library, thinks so. Like many psychologists across the subject’s various disciplines, he has been persuaded of the contribution of evolutionary psychology to our understanding of the human condition. Evolutionary psychology investigates our behaviour in terms of long-term survival strategies, connecting what we do now with our ancestral experiences dating back many hundreds of thousands of years. Like our ability to enjoy music, learn language and form relationships, according to this view, much of our social and interpersonal behaviour is hardwired, and no amount of modern legislation or technology can change it. And one way or another, it all comes down to sex.

Furnham’s talk focused on gender differences in the workplace, although the differences he identified are discernible in infants just a few hours old. Evolution is no respecter of political correctness, and Furnham showed how males are consistently better at spatial reasoning and shape rotation than females, while females consistently outperform males in tests of calculation, recall and verbal dexterity. There’s more. Across all cultures and jobs, males value status, power and money more than any other attribute of their jobs. They take more risks and enjoy greater success than comparable women; they thrive in competitive hierarchies and aim for leadership roles. Women prefer teams, work better in groups and regularly trade off money and power for relationships and job security. They generally earn less than men in similar positions and value work for its intrinsic rewards, not for its role as a route to leadership.

Evolutionary psychology explains these bald truths in terms of ancient gender roles – men hunting, defending and competing for women; women home-making, child-rearing and seeking the best genes for their future children. Like it or not, the evidence for powerful gender-based behaviours is compelling – and the implications are significant. Our hardwired behaviours are unlikely to change much for at least ten thousand years, so it makes sense to take them into account when designing the future workplace. What technology has done so far is render the classic masculine working culture somewhat cumbersome. In a wired world, individual decisions, rigid hierarchies and aggressive competition are unhelpful and personally limiting; what works is extensive communication, co-operation, and a preference for goal-oriented use of technology rather than random experimentation.

The workplace, Furnham proposed, is becoming increasingly feminised, because technology relies on and enhances typically feminine strengths. For user experience professionals, it means design for gender is about more than pink versus blue; more than gaming versus chatting. Ancient behaviours combined with modern technology will impact, in emergent and also unpredictable ways, on work structures, working patterns and work value systems, but whatever happens, it will be moulded around the ways in which men and women instinctively prefer to behave, rather than moulding their behaviour."    (Continued via Usability News, Joanna Bawa)    [Ergonomics Resources]

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