Why we choose tall men for more than reaching high shelves
Stereotypes emerged over time to make life easier. They are a filing system for every day challenges. In the caveman era they allowed us to identify if someone was friend or foe, to protect both our lives and food supply. The need to protect the food chain and the survival of the species were the dominant drivers. Men it was believed fulfilled that role as the “tribe’s” hunters and so it is thought this is where gender roles and expectations are rooted. And why we choose tall men to be our leaders.
But recent research suggests that in those days gender roles for men and women were much more fluid than was originally thought. Both men and women were hunters, polygamy was common and men and women had multiple sexual partners. Big game played a much smaller part in the Paleolithic diet and we know now that men did a spot of gathering. But above all neither men or women were stigmatised when their roles overlapped.
Fast forward to the agricultural era (7000 BC) and things for women and equality went steadily downhill. Ploughs required upper body strength and men assumed the role of responsibility for the food supply. This relegated women to a secondary role as child bearers to provide labour for this new and growing societal structure.
Over time, as our culture became more sophisticated, we developed a more nuanced approach of classification to decide who to trust based on other perceptions. Ethnicity, nationality, religion, language to name a few. Add additional more recent layers of accent, post code, appearance, occupation, sexuality and so on, the question of bias becomes incredibly complex and deep-seated.
[Tweet “Onto these different labels we project skills, opinions and potential behaviour patterns.”] With regard to gender it starts very young
“Runs like a girl” – try saying that to Jessica Ennis Hill or Kelly Holmes. “Woman proof cars” – would not go down well with Danica Patrice
Read: 117 years to gender parity – get busy or what?
Male culture, male behaviour
[Tweet ” Today, male culture defines most organisations.”] The ruling elites of our corporations are resoundingly male and set the tone for what happens at lower levels. Now physical strength and protection of the food supply is no longer a valid benchmark, tall men should in theory no longer rule the roost.
However, we are all still locked into our cave-man DNA of recognising and revering the “hunter” leader. Just as we did when we lived in caves we subconsciously give preferential treatment to tall men. Malcom Gladwell suggests that:
In the U.S. population, about 14.5% of all men are 6’0 ” or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58% Even more strikingly, in the general American population, 3.9% of adult men are 6’2″ or taller. Among my CEO sample, 30% were 6’2″ or taller.
At some very subliminal level we still “look up” (interesting turn of phrase) to the person who can maintain the food supply and protect us. [Tweet “Today’s leader will have a Smart Phone not a spear, to bring home the bacon.”] Women can be just as handy with their mobile devices to guarantee they can eat, as tall men. All it takes is a trip to the supermarket or the tap of a well manicured finger. In today’s high-tech world and knowledge economies, leadership is still equated with physical strength and weight and the power that implies, when the heaviest thing many male leaders have to schlep around is a laptop.
This expectation is so deeply embedded that men who are vertically challenged, adopt exaggerated behaviour patterns to reinforce their authority. Short man syndrome (Napoleon complex) is recognised as way of acting out to compensate for perceived short comings (another pertinent turn of phrase.) If women do the same, they experience push-back, because they behave outside gender expected norms. We have replaced physical strength with resilience found in the 24/7 availability culture which has become the 21st century device for keeping women out of the corporate sand box.
At the Davos World Economic Forum it was noted that organic gender parity would not be achieved for another 117 years. Anyone reading this will be dead. Research from the Fawcett Society noted that 44% of the study recognised a central gender balanced zone of expectation where both men and women behaved in outside stereotypical ways. In then next 10 years this is the zone that needs targeting by both men and women.
[Tweet “Unconscious bias and communication training should be a priority for all organisations.”] Yet even in organisations which have invested heavily in this type of training, the gender balance needle isn’t moving. Microsoft announced last month that gender balanced teams would become a KPI related to bonuses. For a second year in a row the number of women dropped from 26.8% to 25.8%.
Read: Gender Balance is a relationship issue first
Opportunity and threat
Yet behavioral change is one of the hardest things to change. Costas Merkides of the London Business School suggests that we need a balance of opportunity and threat adn rationla and emotional reactions to disrupt the way we do things. The business case (rational) for gender balance is incontrovertible. Yet research suggests that there is still resistance from men to embrace it and many are at best indifferent. It has given rise to the concept of “mancession” a trend where jobs which have traditionally employed men were cut back in times of economic difficulty, sometimes never to be replaced.
When an organisation leads change it will always encounter resistance. The question will be how long will it take for that wake-up call to kick in? How serious does the threat have to be to disrupt organisational thinking?
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