Behavioral Styles and Gender

Over the past year I have had quite a revelation. Two different aspects of my professional life have merged into an epiphany.

Let me give you some backstory here. My career is in talent development. I focus on leadership development, team development and group dynamics.

Part of my role is helping people to communicate effectively. Two years ago I was certified in DISC Communication. Now, just what is DISC, exactly? Let start with a brief history of how DISC came to be. In the early 1920’s, Carl Jung outlined the four types of personalities. But, it was Dr. Marston, in 1928, a psychology professor at Columbia University that published what we now refer to as the DISC model of communication styles.

These are the 4 main behavioral styles known as DISC:

Image result for disc communication

We are a blend of all 4 of these styles, but we each have one that is our most dominant one.

Communication is usually the most challenging thing for many people, especially in organizations. DISC Communication is used in many large organizations to help people identify their own behavioral styles as well as the behavioral styles of others. Once people learn how others communicate, they are able to better adapt their communication style to other people.

There is a lot more to DISC, but that is the quickest version I could give you without going into the rabbit hole. Hold on to this information for a few because we are going to come back to it.

The other thing I do at work is diversity and inclusion training. Specifically, I am a facilitator of D&I conversations amongst leadership groups as well as intact teams. We dig into the unconscious bias and different types of biases that we all have and get into how those biases impact our decision making and relationships with other people.

In many sessions, we always talk about the “Competence/Likeability Tradeoff Bias” (amongst other biases). This bias is where women in the workplace have to decide whether they come across as competent in their role, and give up being liked, or they choose to be liked and give up being perceived as competent.

What tends to happen is that women who are competent, direct, are often called negative things like “a bitch” or “pushy” whereas men don’t have to really choose between one or the other. In fact, men who exhibit these same characteristics are often revered and respected.

Here is a video from Pantene demonstrating this bias:

Let’s tie these threads and see how they related:

I was facilitating a DISC session with a group when they asked me “How does gender play into this?”

I have seen the relationship between DISC and gender many times, but no one ever outwardly asked me about it. We had a great conversation around it. I then realized that it was incredibly important to share this information with as many people as possible.

So what is the relationship between the two? Perception and bias. A person’s behavioral style coupled with gender (specifically, the societal views, expectations and biases we have for gender) creates these biases.

Men who are dominant in the D DISC style are often the direct, short and to the point, bottom-line driven leader who gets shit done. This is usually what people visualize on their heads when they hear “leader”.

Women who are dominant in the D DISC style can be described with the same adjectives, but society has forced women into these boxes of being soft-spoken, submissive and nurturing. A woman exerting dominance panics men and even other women because they are breaking away from the roles designated by society.

As a man who is also high in Dominant, I know that it is a privilege for me to be able to communicate the way I do whereas a woman has to check and recheck how she is communicating to make sure she’s not coming across as a bitch.

Interesting enough, the reverse happens to men and women when they are both dominant in the Steady DISC style.

People who are dominant in S are very relationship focused because their primary focus is people. They are good listeners and always there to help support other people. We equate these characteristics to what we think women should be, and so these women become the “mom” of the team. I have heard several women dominant in Steady referred to as this before.

It fascinates me that males who are dominant is Steady aren’t viewed quite the same. They are well-liked by their teams, but the team leans on them to be more of a “leader” than their female counterparts. They may even come across as weak or not having strong leadership skills. None of these males are called “dad” by their team. In fact, if you think about most peoples’ childhoods, Dad meant business and that was always the card Mom played to let you know you were in trouble because he was the “leader” of the family.

I have also observed how people who are dominant in Conscientious are treated. People dominant in this DISC style are very analytical and exact. They look at everything through data, which means they ask a lot of probing questions to seek to understand.

Women who are dominant in Conscientious often having a harder time asking their peers for more information or clarification. They are usually perceived as micromanaging, nitpicking or just being “a bitch”.

Day in and day out, gender biases are going in full force simply because of behavioral style that people happen to naturally embody and demonstrate. People are not being mean or bitchy.

There is an actual, scientific and psychological reason why people behave the way that they do. The characteristics are the same regardless of gender. It’s our minds that are making up stories and cutting down both men and women.

I ask you all of you to be open to the fact that your biases are causing you blindspots in how you treat other people. The world is hard enough as it is. Let’s not add to these additional challenges to peoples’ lives when we don’t have to.


What is DISC?

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