Deconstructing competency and skill through a gender lens

In a perfect world, this topic would be inconceivable. However, we live in a world where stereotypes, cognitive biases and structural inequalities are very much present. Terms like ‘skills’ and ‘competencies’ are a staple in the corporate world. What do they define? How do their definitions correlate with gender differences and gender biases? Let’s dive a bit deeper into these concepts and analyze the implications that lie beyond the obvious. Before doing that, let’s take a look at the textbook definitions.

  • Skills are specific learned abilities. Writing a blog is a skill. So is computer programming, gaming, dancing, data entry, oral communication, and truck driving. Skills describe what activities employees are trained to perform.
  • Competencies encompass skills, along with knowledge and behaviour. They are how a person performs on the job.

Understanding the longstanding gender imbalances in the realm of work

Whenever gender differences with regards to competency are discussed, a few questions are inevitably  addressed. Are there gender differences in the type of competencies exhibited by men and women? Are different types and levels of competencies applied to men and women who are in the same job? Needless to say, these are loaded questions. 

In the fascinating and highly controversial book ‘The Sexual Paradox’, the author Susan Pinker takes a hard look at how fundamental gender differences play out in the workplace. Men still outnumber women in fields such as law, politics, physical science, business and engineering. On the other hand, there are occupations such as social work and speech therapy in which women outshine men by every metric.  If skill and competencies have no gender, what explains these polar differences? Combining psychological research and social statistics, the book unpacks the gender differences in skills through two paradigms – discrimination and choice. While discrimination plays an obvious role in the existence of gendered skills, can choice and preference also play a role? Pinker throws light on insights that come from complex subjects such as evolutionary biology and neuroscience. 

The fallibility of a single overarching theory

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. The book is by no means a debate-settler. The question remains that if there are multiple factors at work, where do we draw the line between societal pressures and preference? In study after study, it has been found that women are more likely than men to underestimate the skill levels of their job, although the same men and women do not differ greatly in the competencies they possess. Women working part-time are more likely to undervalue the skills level of their job than that of women who hold a full-time job. Conversely, women are consistently rated lower on leadership ability by managers. On top of all these, the process of translating skills and competencies to individual performance criteria is complex and liable to gender bias. When performance appraisal remains the main method for assessing performance, where does the buck stop? Often, the conclusions arrived at can be attributed to phenomena such as confirmation bias and framing effect.  Our tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs should be something to be wary of. Similarly, we should be conscious of the influence asserted by the presentation of the information, rather than the information itself.

Learning a new skill is relatively easier when compared with developing a competency. A person can only develop competency over time, practice and experience. It begets the question if factors concerning human potential trumps gender differences in determining our abilities. Maybe the right question to ask is not whether gender differences play a role, but how they intersect with other equally-complex factors. For example, personality traits could be shaping our skills and competencies. What does age and experience add to the argument? By taking situational explanations into consideration, we will be able to avoid fundamental attribution errors. When we consider the intersectionality and diversity of the workplace, restricting the analysis of skill and competencies to the gender dimension alone proves to be inadequate.  

Moving beyond analysis to strategize inclusivity

From an organizational and policy standpoint, the unanswerable questions that were brought up in this article are beside the point. We need not be discouraged by the lack of a single unchallenged theory that establishes gender’s influence in work competency. Regardless of archetypes and discernable demographic differences, one should not expect any significant difference in the competencies possessed by both men and women. Our expectations should not be mirrored by statistics or theories.

Perceptions of work abilities among men and women could be a product of stereotypes and societal pressures rather than individual performance. There is a need for change in our perception.  Yet, perceptions are not the only problem here. The wider systemic imbalances that nurture our perceptions have to be addressed as well. That extends far beyond the work sphere. 

Competency has become an important facet in today’s era be it leadership or decision making. New skills are demanded in almost every sector to keep up with the incredible pace in which technology evolves. In the next few decades, gendered notions of competence are likely to fade away. Yet, it is worthwhile to remember that the corporate world is not immune to gender bias and deep-seated prejudices. The relationship between gender and professional ability may not be scientific, but social.

Leave a comment