When I first started publishing The Spearhead, I had a whole lot of time on my hands. For the two thirds of the time I wasn’t taking care of my kids, the only living creature I had to keep me company was my ornery old tomcat. It took some adjustment to get used to being alone all the time, but in hindsight it was probably for the best — I wasn’t in a very sociable state of mind for a couple of years post separation and divorce.
This solitude allowed me to throw myself into writing, editing and running a prolific site that posted up to 100 articles per month in 2010/11. Over time, I began to appreciate the opportunity to do my own thing, and I had that sense of being in “the zone.” Looking back, it was possible because I could focus on work without distraction. I may be a little more inclined to work alone than most, but that kind of “focus” is a masculine trait, and probably explains why men are so much more likely to come up with unique innovations. Of course, men work in teams, too, but I’ve always noticed that even when they do so they tend to keep interaction focused mainly on specific work-related problems (do athletes discuss their romantic relationships on the field?).
With women, it’s different. Interaction is not a means to an end so much as it is an integral part of the work/life experience. Instead of the occasional banter and jibes that characterize male socialization at work and serve mainly to kill time during periods of inactivity, it becomes something of a necessity. Meetings for the sake of meeting, chat as ritual, after work socialization and so on.
For many men, this is fatal to focus and productivity. It certainly is for me. When I’m interrupted while writing, it takes me a long time to get back on track. Sometimes, while working, I am so absorbed in what I’m doing that I don’t even notice what’s going on around me. When forced to notice, by being interrupted for example, that concentration vanishes into thin air, and I find myself working harder than before to regain momentum. Incidentally, this is why I’ve been posting infrequently lately; having the kids over during summer break makes it nearly impossible to avoid interruption, so I might as well simply indulge them while I have my time with them.
According to my limited experience and what I hear from friends, constant distraction is the usual state of affairs in the typical corporate workplace. Interruptions are frequent, people do not leave you alone, gossip and innuendo abound, and socialization merely for its own sake is common. How, I wonder, does anyone get any work done in such an environment?
It may be that women are better at performing on the job while socializing; there is some evidence that women can “multitask” better than men. This is probably nature’s doing, as mothers with young children must perform work while in a constant state of interruption (children are relentless in placing demands on one’s attention). On the other hand, as hunters and tool-makers, men would have had to have a strong ability to focus on a single task to the exclusion of others. When stalking a deer, merely turning aside to deal with a distraction for a split second could mean going hungry that night. When using an axe or hammer, losing focus could also mean losing a finger. I used to work in carpentry, and when we were using tools – even simple ones – we left each other alone. Anyone in the habit of interrupting fellow workers wouldn’t have lasted more than a day on the job. Now that I think of it, I have never met a female carpenter.
I strongly suspect men and women evolved different means of dealing with tasks due to their biological roles, which remain real even today. Sexual division of labor is very old, and has been found in every single primitive culture studied so far. It is even found today in so-called “progressive” companies, whether they admit it or not. However, there has been a trend since the 1980s to enforce a balance of the sexes wherever feasible. I wonder whether this isn’t coming at the expense of productivity — specifically male productivity. While women may be able to do their jobs passably in an environment filled with distractions, there must be a lot of men out there who are not living up to their potential because of the more “interactive” workplace.
There are countless articles about the importance of workplace interaction, how it solves problems, mitigates disputes, etc. But how about when it causes problems, such as lack of focus and loss of concentration? Interaction may be part of the job for an airline stewardess, a waitress and a schoolteacher, but how about a pilot, a chef and an academic researcher? In the latter set of examples, I can see where an overly interactive workplace could lead to some serious problems.
Maybe it’s time for men to assert their own workplace preferences. I have a feeling that, despite the warm and fluffy sound of concepts like interactivity, synergy and team building, most men would be happier if everyone would just shut up and shovel the gravel.