Is Recognition Fundamentally Female?

March 25, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Do men and women practice appreciation differently? Is recognition and reward more effective for one gender than another?

First, there is always a danger in employing generalizations in the workplace—even in the abstract. Our employees are, above all, individuals. Any discussion of managing by gender should always be taken with a very large grain of salt. That said, some generalizations can help us to understand and discuss differences in the big picture, and help us to better meet the needs of both genders. So, that said, is there anything to this idea?

Gender in the workplace is an uncomfortable topic for many—especially those of us raised by feminist parents and influenced by twentieth century pop culture, which taught us all that gender is just a chromosome. After all, went the popular wisdom, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—except backward and in high heels.

Needless to say, thinking has evolved a bit on this. Equality, in the new millennium, is still about equity, but no longer about sameness. Studies have found that physiological differences in males and females do extend to the brain. And though there are dissenting voices on our differences, I doubt any of us would say that, even in 2013, boys and girls are socialized the same way in any country in the world.

So, let’s start with some data. The following is how many studies I looked at tend to say men and women differ in the workplace. This language is from one 2004 study by Lluminari, a health education firm:

Tend to Emphasize and Value:
Tend to Emphasize and Value: 

Pay and benefits
Achievement and success
Status and authority

Friends at work and relationships
Recognition and respect
Communication and collaboration


Your own mileage may vary, but if we take the experts at their word, must we really conclude that what is working for the goose is less effective for the gander? After all, recognition shows up squarely in the women’s category. Let’s tackle the question by breaking it down into two parts:

1.  Are Women Better at Recognition?
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics from Georgetown, would probably argue yes. She has sliced it like this: women tend to take more of a “rapport” approach to communication and men tend to take more of a “report” approach.

 – -Indirect, but succinct, style
-Use of qualifiers
-Saying “I’m sorry” more
-Taking on blame
-Giving thanks and appreciation
-Maintaining an appearance of equality, downplaying qualifications
-Downplaying authority
-Considering relationships
 – -Direct requests
-More talking in meetings
-Ritual conflict, teasing, and banter
-Giving advice to solve problems rather than -expressing support
-Mixing business and non-business talk
-Rarely giving praise or compliments
-Up-playing authority, downplaying doubts

I’m not sure this entirely divides along gender lines—I know I myself seem to draw from both categories—but in the aggregate, and along with other research, it would seem to imply that women ARE perhaps more naturally inclined to express appreciation. Or at least those who communicate via rapport (which is an arguably more feminized approach).

2.  Is Recognition Better for Women?
According to studies, like this one from Ohio State, women do tend to GET more recognition from others for their work, and they are more likely to be thanked than men—just as men tend to receive higher wages, on average. But that doesn’t mean men wouldn’t respond as well if they got recognized.

That started me wondering, so I went back into our last Workforce Mood Tracker survey and filtered by gender. Here’s what I found:

  • 69% of men felt appreciated at their jobs vs. 63% of women.
  • 26% of men had been recognized in the past month vs. 27% of women.

When rates of recognition were about equal—and in our survey they were—men’s response was to feel a bit more appreciated, which would seem to indicate that they do not rely on recognition as much as women, in order to feel appreciated.

This got me thinking about how recognition behaves for men vs. women within a STRUCTURED recognition platform. After all, the Ohio State study was not discerning a difference between recognition types. So again, in the Mood Tracker, I looked at companies that are using structured, formal recognition solutions with best practices—like Globoforce’s—vs those who are not. The results were very interesting. It would seem that the vehicle for recognition made much more of a difference in everyone’s satisfaction levels than whether employees had X or Y chromosomes. See below.

  Men Women
Have a Company Recognition Program Tied to Values 89%
felt appreciated
felt appreciated
No Company Recognition
in Place
felt appreciated
felt appreciated

Source: Globoforce Workforce Mood Tracker Survey, Fall 2012

So, is recognition fundamentally gendered? I’d say no. Recognition seems to be responsive to the needs of everyone. The research does, however, seem to indicate that there are almost certainly some gender differences in how we approach communication and give recognition. So as HR leaders, we should be sensitive to the fact that giving kudos may come easier to some than others, and make the effort to reach both those who use rapport and those who use report communication types.

But a structured recognition program is highly effective despite those differences. Why? Here’s my take: When employee recognition follows best practices, it connects with people on multiple levels, and this can impact men and women in different but equally powerful ways.

  • A message might be seen as affirming and socially inclusive by someone who communicates via rapport–because it is social, or because it is peer-to-peer.
  • The EXACT SAME message might be seen as a mark of achievement and status to someone who communicates via report–because it is public, or because it is tied in to company goals and values.

Same message. Different receiver. Different interpretations. Both effective.

So, vive la difference! And vive recognition!

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