Women, would you rather work only with other women?
Men, are you in a better mood at the office when you’re surrounded by male colleagues?
Yes and yes, according to a recently published study on gender diversity in the workplace. It found employees are happier when they work with people of the same sex. The slightly puzzling flip side? Single-sex workplaces aren’t nearly as productive as those where men and women earn their livings side by side.
“We all think that we want to be in this pluralistic society in a diverse setting,” said Sara Ellison, a senior economics lecturer at MIT who co-
authored the study. “But when push comes to shove, when our co-workers don’t think like we do, that can cause some friction.”
Granted, all-male workplaces are rarer than they used to be back when men went to work and women stayed home, but the study zeroed in on a unique situation — an unnamed Boston professional services company with 60 small offices around the world, some of which were staffed entirely by men, some made up of only women.
Using employee surveys from 1995 to 2002, the researchers measured cooperation, trust, and work enjoyment, along with corresponding figures on diversity and revenue over that same eight-year period.
As is common in economics, it took several years for the study to be published in an academic journal. Though based on data from years ago, the results shed light on feelings that have probably not changed much.
Incorporating more points of view and challenging people to rethink their assumptions about one another often lead to more innovative solutions at a company — but that doesn’t necessarily mean everybody enjoys the process.
The findings do not surprise Anne Litwin, a Boston organizational development consultant. Litwin said that in workshops she has conducted, people commonly revealed they are more comfortable with co-workers of the same sex.
Men complain they have to “walk on eggshells” around women colleagues, she said, out of fear of saying something they might find offensive. “They feel like their equilibrium is being thrown off, and it’s uncomfortable,” said Litwin, author of the recently published “New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.”
Women, however, say they have to fight to get their ideas noticed when the office is crawling with men.
“They feel like they have to be assertive to be heard, and then they get accused of being the ‘B’ word,” Litwin said. “They get told that they’re hard to work with.”
The Boston company that was studied had offices ranging in size from two to 19 employees, and several were made up of either all men or all women. When the researchers tweaked the data from the same-sex offices to see what expected company earnings would be if the employees were split evenly along gender lines, they found that revenue increased by roughly 41 percent.
The study contradicted previous research showing content employees are more efficient. Having a broad range of viewpoints and experience provides more tools to complete a task, leading to a healthier bottom line, Ellison noted. That means diversity trumps happiness when it comes to generating higher profits.
The study also found that employees felt good about working for a company that cared about equality between the sexes — as long as that caring didn’t translate into action.
“They liked the idea of diversity more than they liked actual diversity,” Ellison said.