Men and Women In Teams: A Report by Lehman Brothers Center for Women in Business

team.jpgby Sima Matthes (New York City)

Balanced gender representation on teams means a proportionate increase in innovation, and a company’s commitment to work/life balance is the key to ensuring such balanced gender representation. So says a report entitled Innovative Potential: Men and Women in Teams by the Lehman Brothers Center for Women in Business. The report was based on the research of Professor Lynda Gratton, Dr Elisabeth Kelan, Andreas Voigt, Lamia Walker and Dr Hans-Joachim Wolfram.

This study followed an earlier one (from 2006) in which women made up the minority of the teams surveyed, resulting in less conclusive results about the impact of a team’s gender makeup in innovation. The current study was more focused on the impact of gender on teams and “ultimately, on innovation.”

The study’s authors sought, in their words, to “broaden and deepen [the] understanding of innovation in teams by taking a closer look at what it means to be a team member, how team members behave with each other, and what impact this has on the team outcome.”

Among the key findings: that “collections of employees in teams and projects is of central importance.” The authors surveyed 100 teams in 17 countries, and nearly 1400 team leaders and members representing the range of employee groups from leadership executives, research and development, finance and accounting, legal, information technology, human resources and marketing. The teams varied in gender makeup from single gender teams to gender-diverse teams with increased proportions of men to women. Team members had to be knowledge-based workers, virtually or centrally located, who had worked together for a minimum of three months under the direction of a project leader.

Rather than the predictable—and widely discussed—difference in styles accorded to the genders, the study showed remarkable similarities in the “attitudes and aspirations” of men and women in the survey group. The key differences:

  1. Male team leaders reported working significantly longer hours than female team leaders. The authors speculate this is due to different cultural pressures on each of the genders: men appear to be more subject to the “long hours” culture while women appear more subject to the pressures of family. (The authors also note that this finding bears further study.)
  2. Men and women have differences when it comes to the “permeable” boundary between work and home. In most cases, the authors found, women perform the majority of domestic labor.
  3. Male team leaders are significantly more likely to have children—96% to 48% of women—and are also more likely to have children in preschool than their female counterparts.

The researchers devoted a section of their report to the “spillover” effect—what we tend to euphemize as work-life balance—and the state of mind and emotional strength of the men and women surveyed. Differences between team leaders and team members, regardless of gender, included:

  • Both men and women team members consider their home lives to be more important than their work lives; however, the reverse is true for team leaders.
  • Most team members, regardless of gender, reported positive spillover between work and home, as well as from home to work. The authors call this an “Enriching cycle” between the two domains of home and work. Team leaders report that work is more important, and that spillover between work and home tended to be negative.
  • Women tend to suffer a bit more from negative spillover, personalizing it and internalizing it.

Male team leaders were more likely to report that they experience spillover, and reported being in a “Depleting cycle” between home and work. The authors remark, “They come home from work exhausted (remember they report longer work hours) and then find home equally challenging (they are likely to have more and younger children than female team leaders – 52% of whom do not have children).

The authors advocate flexible working for both men and women to help decrease the effects of this cycle: “It is crucial that companies urgently consider the way in which time pressures can be reduced and the long working-hours culture addressed.”

The study of the effect the proportion of women and men in groups revealed that neither gender functions well as the minority on a team. They tend to feel less committed to the organization and less satisfied with their lives. Men in a minority tend to bond with one another; women in the minority tend to go outside the group to network.

Although historical surveys of gender balance in working groups have identified a “tipping point” of 30% women/70% men within groups, the best balance, not surprisingly, is a 50/50 split, or one that slightly favors women.

The Glass Hammer has previously reported on the impact women have on innovation at their companies, and the Anita Borg institute hosted a webinar in September on the topic.

This research report emphasizes that companies that pay attention to balancing gender representation on teams can see a proportionate increase in innovation.

At L’Oreal, for example, where the eployee population is greater than 60% female, the researchers found that the culture was not “feminine” but complex. “The company’s commitment to diversity both within gender and across gender encourages innovation.”

Similarly, at Volvo, innovation took center stage a few years ago with the creation of a prototype car “by women for people”. Unveiled in 2004 and dubbed “Your Concept Car” it had unabashedly female details like changeable seat covers and carpets and a gas cap that could be opened without damaging one’s manicure; however, the car was also decidedly appealing to the male consumer with gadgets and gizmos a-plenty. According to the website “How Stuff Works” “…the YCC project marked a new way of thinking. Men typically dominate the car industry, and the YCC was the first project to employ a design team on which women made all of the development decisions.”

The report’s authors summarized their findings: “On a team level it was interesting to note that the key levers and drivers for innovative processes are positively influenced by having a 50:50 proportion of men and women in teams. This clearly shows that equal gender representation can help to unlock the innovative potential of teams.”