Does focusing on strengths bridge the gender gap in workplaces?

Increasingly workplaces are encouraging people to develop our strengths – those things we’re good at and actually enjoy doing.  Given that using our strengths taps into the ways our brains are wired to perform at their best, this seems like good business sense.   But is this an approach that serves men and women equally well?

Perhaps not.

Having taught people to develop their strengths in all sorts of organizations, in the past I would have told you that while most people seem to benefit from a strengths focus, women seem particularly drawn to this approach.  Often struggling to feel confident and authentic at work, the permission to start doing more of what they do best sounds like the bells of freedom being rung.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve seen men benefit from a strengths focus as well.  They just don’t seem to yearn for it in the same way I see women do in workplaces.

So when I recently ran a free global Strengths Challenge to help people create a daily 11-minute strengths habit, I wasn’t surprised that there were four times as many women as men who participated.  And while being able to use their strengths each day helped both men and women feel significantly more engaged in their work, I was shocked at some of the other differences they reported in this study: 

  • Generally women felt their organisations were less supportive of developing their strengths (51% compared to 61% of men).  However, when they did believe their organisation was supportive they were more likely (40% compared to 25%) to have had a conversation with their manager about their strengths.
  • While numerous studies have found that meaningful conversations with managers can help people develop their strengths, this time it had far more impact for men (79% compared to 66% for women). 
  • Setting weekly goals around developing their strengths was the step most likely to equally improve engagement for both sexes (77%).  However even though this helped women to feel almost as valued and respected for their strengths (77% compared to 80% of men), they were still less likely to describe themselves as flourishing (60% compared to 71% of men). Perhaps because they were still less likely to be using their strengths each day at work (75% compared to 80% of men).
  • So it appears although both men and women seemed to benefit from the opportunity of using their strengths at work each day, men were more likely to report a sense of flourishing.

Of course there could numerous explanations for these patterns.   Perhaps a Strengths Challenge attracted very strengths focused men committed to taking action.  Maybe it simply reflects the broader gender issues playing out in many workplaces.  Or it could suggest that simply encouraging women to use their strengths more is not enough for them to fully reap the benefits.

For me it raised, three possible actions:

  • Organisations Need To Value Strength Diversity: Organisations investing in strengths development programs need to communicate and celebrate more clearly the need for strengths diversity.  While much is still being learnt about how different strengths may assist in different roles, a flourishing workplace is more likely to have a diverse range of people who each feel respected and valued for doing what they do best.
  • Managers Need To Be Trained To Have Strengths Conversations: It’s not enough to just tell managers to focus more on their people’s strengths.  Managers need help understanding how to talk about strengths that are being used well, strengths that are being overplayed or underplayed, and how to navigate strength collisions.  They also need to know when to address a weakness head on.  This will make them more effective in helping people set weekly strengths goals and do more of what they do best each day.
  • We Need To Be Mindful Of Our Stories About Strengths: Two of the most common stories women tell me about why they aren’t using their strengths more at work are: “I’m too busy” and “that wouldn’t be valued here”.  I have no doubt both carry elements of truth, but are they absolutely accurate? 

    In reality, just 11-minutes of developing your strengths each day has been found to have benefits. And when you think back on the times you’ve been engaged, energized and enjoying your work you’ll find one or more of your strengths underpin every one of these moments (you just might not be aware of them).  I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but I am suggesting that when we choose to believe something is possible, it’s amazing what can be done.

If you’re looking for ways to help yourself – or others – get more benefit from putting their strengths to work why not join the free global Strengths Challenge from the 6th – 12th February, 2016 at

Michelle McQuaid

Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author, workplace wellbeing teacher and playful change activator. With more than a decade of senior leadership experience in large organizations around the world,  she’s passionate about translating cutting-edge research from positive psychology and neuroscience, into practical strategies for health, happiness, and business success. 


Twitter: @chellemcquaid

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