Understanding cultural and gender differences is essential for EMS managers

A positive approach to conflict can improve team synergy, cohesion and idea generation

By David Slifka

EMS has made positive changes from a profession which in the 1960s was perceived as being gender-specific and without much cultural diversity. Today diversity, both gender and cultural, is becoming more prominent in nearly every EMS organization. Gender and cultural diversity can give rise to conflict, which is not necessarily a negative for EMS management teams or field personnel.

As with other types of conflict it is important to understand that there are positive and negative approaches in recognizing and dealing with gender-based or cultural-specific conflict.

Reading Emergency Unit, clinical education director and dean of students debate the formatting and scheduling of the EMS training curriculum.
Reading Emergency Unit, clinical education director and dean of students debate the formatting and scheduling of the EMS training curriculum. (Photo courtesy of David Slifka)

Gender and conflict
Think back to a difficult issue that was made more difficult by perceptions that affected the experience. Remember a time when a person said or did something whereby you believed their motivation was to be harmful to you? How did you react to this assumption? Was the other person ever able to say, "That’s not what I meant at all? I was trying to tell you…?" How did the difference in perceptions affect your relationship?

Your gender and the gender of those with who you engage in conflict with affect your behavior and your views or perceptions. One way of viewing the role of gender in conflict interaction is to recognize that men and women take a separate, but equal way of viewing communication differences. Rather than viewing women as being deficient in male communication skills or males as lacking important relational skills that women are assumed to possess, both should be viewed for their face value.

Current research shows that in some circumstances there are female/male differences in enacting conflict. For example, men will often exhibit dominating and competitive behavior and while women exhibit avoidant and compromising behavior. Men have the tendency to take control of the conversation and lead it in the direction they want. However, they expect their female conversational partners to offer some resistance in the same manner in which men would do. On the contrary, women remain in a listening mode rather than lecturing which puts them at a disadvantage. In organizations, women are more than likely to leave than men are when there is ongoing, pervasive conflict [1].

In the book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" the author and relationship counselor, John Gray, Ph.D., points out that most common relationship problems between men and women are the result of fundamental psychological differences between the genders. Before we decide that "men are like this and women are like that," as Grays writes, we need to address the similarities among men’s and women’s conflict behaviors.

In fact, researchers conclude, there are no meaningful gender differences in positive affect behavior, influence strategies or how they lead an organization. Essentially, there are more similarities than differences between men’s and women’s conflict behaviors.

Regardless of our gender, some level of organizational conflict is necessary, and depending on how we approach it may result in a positive or negative effect. If we approach conflict in a positive manner, it can improve the quality of decisions we make, create more synergy and cohesion among teams, and even foster new ideas, alternatives and solutions.

Gender filters
Gender filters often affect how we see or perceive conflict behaviors. As mentioned, men and women tend to view the connection between one another quite differently. Even when actual behaviors appear to be identical, such as when negotiating competitively, we conceptualize relationships quite differently. For example, women are more likely to view the relationship in a manner in which everyone is affecting everyone else. On the contrary, men are more likely to see themselves, as being independent, not connected to any specific relationship [1].

Gender filters affect our understanding of conflict because our filters may affect our behaviors [1]. When feeling powerless, men tend to present their position and offer reasons to support it. On the other hand, women’s approaches vary based on the opponent’s gender. Men tend to use independent reasoning in managing conflict and women a more interdependent approach. Men tend to choose their responses based on the offended person’s rights, whereas, women will choose their responses based on relational obligations.

Approaching conflict in a negative manner is unhealthy when it is avoided or approached in a win/lose manner. Conflict can be destructive and uncontrollable and cause productivity to suffer. In addition, it can lead to a break down in communication causing mistrust and support. As team members or managers it is our responsibility to eliminate the negative components of conflict.

Culture and conflict
Whether transferring to another country, state or organization, each of us will experience cultural diversity at some level. Whether individualistic or collectivistic, cultural effects depend on many factors, such as education, personal background, race or ethnicity. EMS is certainly experiencing cultural changes, both within our own organizations as well as the communities we serve.

Changes in our workplace demand a higher level of awareness and sensitivity toward the different ways to handle conflict and its associated cultural effects. As an individualistic society, we must come to an understanding about the values and expectations of those in collectivistic societies. Also, recognizing how culture affects employee workplace behavior helps management maximize the positive and minimize the negative effects on employee job satisfaction.

Every organization has a corporate culture, whether it is clear or not. When organizational culture meets ethnic culture, there is always an effect. If an organization is upbeat, team-oriented and pleasant, the results are positive. On the contrary, a negative organizational culture may engulf all employees, regardless of diverse cultural issues.

Organizations that promote employee engagement also reap the harvest of employee satisfaction. Engaged employees are those who care about their jobs, their employers, their co-workers, and managers. Corporate and ethnic culture factors into employee views of their jobs. Empowering employees by allowing them to participate in decisions and implementing workplace changes leads to a positive cultural effect.

Cultural filters
As we expect, cultural filters based on our culture influence how we interpret others. If we want to become more in tune with our own cultural filters as well as learn the meaning of others’ behavior, we need to translate and understand the different conflict dialects. Remember, we see the world differently from others because of our filters.

We all face conflict as we move through our personal, social and work lives. Our personal history such as our family of origin and other influences makes a difference in how we respond to conflict. Often gender plays a key role in the behaviors we choose in dealing with conflict, and often influences how we see one another. Our culture affects our behavior and perception of others in conflict.

About the author
David S. Slifka, BAS, EMT-P, EMSIC is the Executive Director for Reading Emergency Unit in Hillsdale County, Michigan. He has spent the past 40 years as a field paramedic, mid-level, and executive level management. He has established three EMS services, and provides consulting services for both large and small EMS organizations. He is also an educator and is a member of the Society of Michigan EMS Instructor Coordinators and a former member of the Michigan Association of Ambulance Services (MAAS). Connect with him on Facebook or email him at davids@readingemergency.com.


1. Wilmot, W., & Hocker, J. (2011). Interpersonal Conflict (Eighth ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill. 

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