Gender May Trump Competency in Choosing Work Partners

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Gee, maybe Freud did get it right when he proclaimed, "Biology is destiny." New research shows that if you're in the running to work on an important project at the office, the odds will be more in your favor if you're the same gender as the colleague who’s choosing partners.

An analysis by Innovisor, a Copenhagen-based management consulting firm, finds that when they asked people to identify the colleagues they collaborate with on a daily basis, both men and women are much more likely to select someone of their own gender.

“The data behind our research is showing that people have a 40 percent higher tendency to collaborate with their own gender,” Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard, an Innovisor partner, tells eFinancialCareers.

The study is based on a survey of 5,000 employees from 60 large public companies around the world.

Gender barrier

“The gender barrier is similar to other barriers to collaboration, such as geography, time zones, organizational layers, etc.,” explains Hansgaard. However in this case, the bias in question is much less visible.

In this particular study, Innovisor filtered out manager/subordinate relationships, not wanting that type of relationship to influence its insights into collaboration barriers. Thus, all of the data has to do with how colleagues choose work partners.

Interestingly enough, geographical barriers to collaboration have been so problematic in the past that companies are working hard to eliminate them—sometimes quite successfully, says Hansgaard. “In the most recent projects we have done, the geographical barrier did not have any influence,” he says, pointing to studies involving both a Pan-Nordic bank and a global biotech firm.

“Leaders had focused so much on mitigating the geographical barrier—through leadership communication, meeting structures and IT tools—that it was almost absent. Instead, we saw another barrier in collaboration between functions and, to some degree, between organizational layers.”

That is not always the case, Hansgaard notes, observing that in other cases “we have seen the geography barrier set in after 30 feet.”

Gender bias in 29 countries

The gender bias existed in all 29 countries involved in the study, from developed nations like the U.S. and UK, as well as emerging markets like China, India and Brazil, the findings show.

What’s important to remember, given these results, is that there are clear barriers to collaboration with business partners that have little to do with one’s capabilities and logistics and much to do with what one’s colleagues look like.

When selecting your own partners on a project, Hansgaard recommends that you assess who is best suited in terms of qualifications and competencies.

“Be aware of your own visible and invisible collaboration barriers,” he says.

And keep in mind that if your colleagues “are able to select their own collaborative partners, they will tend to select them out of mutual sympathy, and because they share the same background [education, gender, etc.],” he says.

Also, as the Wall Street Journal reports, “Anecdotal evidence suggests similar biases may also exist when it comes to ethnicity and religion, though more analysis is needed."

“Often, these biases go unnoticed because collaborative relationships are forged informally between individuals rather than being assigned by a boss," Hansgaard says. “But as a growing body of research suggests diverse groups perform better, companies should more actively manage their collaboration efforts."

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