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Why I like Ludvig

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It’s time to pull out your “I Like Ludwig” t-shirt.

That’s Ludwig as in Wittgenstein, the influential philosopher who pointed out that most sets can’t be unambiguously defined solely through well-defined rules.

Games are an example. There is no list of attributes that accurately classifies solitaire, tennis, football, Dungeons and Dragons, and office politics as games, even though we all know that’s what they are.

Not convinced? (1) Many games are contests against an opponent, but not when you’re playing FreeCell. (2) Many games are played by teams. Not tennis, though. Or FreeCell. (3) Most games have winners and losers. Dungeons and Dragons does not.

As for office politics, like all politics it has game-like characteristics such as having winners and losers. But most games are played for fun. In this day and age there’s little that’s fun about politics of any kind.

Gender classifications – an increasingly contentious issue all working managers must deal with – face the same Wittgensteinian challenge. We each maintain in our subconscious a list of physical and behavioral characteristics we think of as masculine (e.g. hairiness), a different list we think of as feminine (e.g. a higher-pitched voice), and a bunch more that are gender-neutral, for example liking or disliking borscht.

Your feminine/masculine lists and mine probably differ, which is why you and I might find ourselves disagreeing as to your gender, mine, someone else’s, and SNL’s legendary “Androgynous Pat.”

Which leads me to conclude that as a society, and in our HR policies, we’re finding ourselves arguing about the answer to a question that doesn’t have one.

Of more direct relevance to you as a KJR subscriber, we’re expending quite a lot of time and energy on how to deal with gender identification in the workforce. And I’m starting to wonder what the point is.

Never mind the question of whether genes, physiology, specific behaviors, interpersonal attraction, or overall sense of personal identity should be gender’s determinant. That’s of legitimate interest to psychologists, sociologists, maybe those responsible for competitive athletics (and maybe not; it is, as mentioned, a complicated and confusing topic) … and, of course, parents, not to mention the individuals who have or are still sorting out who they are.

It’s also, as we’ve experienced over the past several years, a topic of illegitimate interest for political rabble-rousers who are more interested in scoring points than helping formulate coherent and compassionate public policy – see “politics as a game,” above.

Mercifully, it’s a question that has (I think) a relatively simple answer when the question is how to deal with gender identification in the workplace.

Which brings us to this week’s question to ponder: Why do businesses collect “Gender” as a data field in our HR databases at all? The KJR answer: It’s tradition, and one that long ago outlived its usefulness.

Even if a person’s gender is, in any meaningful way, a predictor of how they would perform in a given role, that would only be a loose correlation at best, and as anyone knows who has passed a class in statistics, statistical significance is entirely different from importance.

So imagine we simply abandoned gender as something we pay attention to in workforce management (marketing and CRM are entirely different matters). Were we to take that step, employees who want their colleagues to identify them as men or women could still choose to dress and behave like stereotypical women or men.

Those who want their colleagues to not care could also dress and behave accordingly.

And those who consider their gender to be both non-binary and something they want a colleague to be aware of could just tell them.

Presumably, nobody would ask a colleague “What gender are you?” on the grounds that the question is (1) nobody’s business, and (2) unbelievably crass.

And if they were that crass, the object of their curiosity ought to answer as follows:


Bob’s last word: I suppose ignoring religion as a dimension of all this would be copping out. And so …

There are those who consider the question of gender to have religious significance, for example the Judeo-Christian bible, which only recognizes men and women as categories. To which I have two observations.

The first is that religion has no place in management, other than a need to accommodate such religion-driven requirements as allowing time for obligatory prayer. The second: Some religions recognize more than two genders.

So unless you think business management should incorporate theology into its HR practices, it would seem that classifying employees by gender is far more trouble than it’s worth.

My legally ignorant solution: Don’t do it.

Now on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:The successful CIO’s trick to mastering politics.” It’s all about relationships, not just winning and losing. Failing to embrace this fact of organizational dynamics can kill a budding manager’s career.

Comments (19)

  • Great opening to bring up one of my pet peeves. “Gender” and “sex” are not the same thing! I go along with the line of thought that says “sex” is, in fact, binary (except for those in the process of transition and the extremely rare physical exception), while “gender” is a spectrum.

    Why do we keep track of “gender”? Because in the US we’ve gotten too squeamish to use the correct word. Why do we track that? Because the government requires it. Aside from the possibility of making sure there is an equitable number of rest rooms, I sure don’t see what difference it makes to a business.

    • I might be missing something, but I think your first paragraph contradicts the second. If gender is a spectrum (or a Wittgensteinian fuzzy set) then we don’t keep track of gender because we’re squeamish about the word “sex.” We keep track of it because “sex” doesn’t do the job of encompassing the full range of gender identity.

      Oh, and by the way, so far as I can determine the government doesn’t require businesses to track employee gender, or sex.

      • “Oh, and by the way, so far as I can determine the government doesn’t require businesses to track employee gender, or sex.”

        Unless it suspects you are hiring (or not hiring) on the basis of sex. Then the way to (dis)prove the suspicion is to show a reasonable balance of sex across the spectrum of employees.

  • And this is why once, to forestall such a conversation, I replied to someone, “We’re here to work and not to have sex so I don’t care at all about that (gender identification etc.). You are valuable because you are you.” And we shouldn’t care about it in any way – hiring, promotions, salary… this is about getting the job done.
    And yes, I’ve had to work out bringing up someone’s salary that was obviously out of alignment for the wrong reasons.

    • I’m not sure “We’re here to work and not to have sex” is the most businesslike way to express the sentiment, but I completely agree with the sentiment.

  • One of your best pieces so far. Having been reading your writings for years, I’ve come to read your perspective. I like what you have to say.

    This piece shows again just how much you are ahead of the field. Again you give me cause to continue to read what you write. I continue to learn from you. Maybe a little bit of confirmation bias.

    You express better than I can what I’m thinking.

  • While it would be great to live in a world without gender bias, that’s not our world. Men really do get paid more than women for the same job much of the time. Men really are more likely to get promoted than equally qualified women. Men really do make up a disproportionate share of C-suite positions. We can’t possibly address the problem of bias if we take steps to ensure we don’t know about it.

    • Hmmm. Not sure how you got there. The step I suggested is (or at least I’d hoped it was) akin to how modern symphony orchestras select the musicians they employ: The musicians audition behind a screen so the conductor doesn’t know their gender.

      Also: your gender phrasing is binary. This week’s emphasis was on how to handle the increasingly difficult challenge posed by applicants and employees who are non-binary.

      I hope that clears this up.

  • At recent “get to know your neighbor” meeting (ill-timed because only two others were able to attend) the conversation between two of them moved to the fact that one of their churches was splitting over the “gay issue.” I said nothing (given they lived within rock throwing distance) but kept thinking, “Have you ever considered that an issue that splits a church is an issue that was [to use their terminology] an issue planted by Satan?”

    I’m sure I would have gotten a blank look from each, though.

  • A good and thought provoking article

    “The meaning is the use and the use is the meaning” is indeed the case when it comes to gender identity and gender orientation in the work place.

    You’ve spoken of the importance of knowing “how things are done around here”, which necessarily includes norms related to gender behavior. IT needs to be aware of these norms because the users we serve are aware of these norms, so these norms can’t be completely ignored by IT managers.

    In hiring and promotions, the way things have been done around here did not include normative behaviors for women, black and Native American techies other than closely imitating white males; nor the metrics to effect representation.

    A few years ago, I was told of a “primitive”culture that had 5 genders instead of our 2. I suspect 5 genders would make all of our lives easier.

  • Great article. However, I noticed one situation you omitted. While you effectively covered the case of one person asking another, “What gender are you?”, you did not address situations where a person chooses to tell others in the office what their own gender and sexual preferences are. I know it happens because it happened in our office about fifteen years ago with a contractor. While I think it was handled reasonably well by all involved, there’s always room for improvement. Any thoughts?

    • I’d intended to cover this situation when I wrote, “And those who consider their gender to be both non-binary and something they want a colleague to be aware of could just tell them.”

      But I suspect you’re looking more for guidance of what an acceptable response is in a business setting when this shared information isn’t welcome, creating an awkward situation for all concerned. While I haven’t been in the situation myself, I know of cases. I think one way to handle it would be to answer with a question: “Why are you telling me this?” expressed with a tone of curiosity, not hostility or disdain.

      What do you think?

      • I like that as a response. Maybe I should have explained that in the case I noted, the information sharing was not limited to a coworker here and there. The contractor went on a crusade to reveal this information to anyone and everyone in the building, from the department’s director on down. It was a case of TMI overload. It fell on me to discuss the situation with this person since I’d been involved in bringing them in. When we spoke, I chose to focus on how ‘oversharing’ can be inappropriate in an office setting, and not the specific content of the message being conveyed.

  • Do employers collect gender, or do they collect biological sex? The latter seems like it might be required to enroll employees in insurance.

    • This is why we need Ludwig. I don’t think most HR departments could answer that question, let alone their employees.

      I’m pretty sure employers could sidestep the insurance issue by having employees enroll directly with the insurer – an entity that does have a legitimate reason to collect at least each insured’s biological sex.

  • I enjoyed the piece!
    However, the challenge I had when in HR was the restroom question. Having a convenient single occupant restroom was the best solution.

  • Excellent points made by you and the other respondents. I have nothing cogent to add but I did notice a typo: “statistical significance is entirely difference from importance.” I think you meant ‘different’.
    Thanks again for a great conversation!

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