Neuro-leadership Rethinking gender differences with the brain in mind

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In numerous reports questioning the gender gap in the workplace, particularly the gap further up the leadership ladder, one persistant argument points to differences in men and women’s confidence. This has led many to address how women can be empowered in the workplace. Such steps are necessary at all professional levels, as even some very high-powered women can feel as if they do not deserve their positions, having the so-called “imposter syndrome.” But confidence is not a panacea; solving the gender gap is a complex issue requiring an equally complex approach.

In a report published recently in the Harvard Business Review, data analysts from management consulting company McKinsey & Co. and workplace analytics company Humanyze tested the argument that women’s behavior is to blame for the dearth of female leaders. For this landmark study, researchers spoke with 70,000 workers from 222 companies that employ more than 12 million people. Of those, 44 percent said that unconscious bias among male managers is a significant barrier to gender diversity in the workplace. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior wrongly place the onus on internal rather than external factors. Based on the results of this study, one cause of gender inequality is the unconscious bias that men are more creative, smarter, and better leaders.  Which raises the question: Are they? What does the science actually say about gender differences in leadership? Do men and women have different brains that could reflect different abilities? If so, whose is better suited for the workplace?

Some are uncomfortable with a biological account of human behavior, feeling it underestimates the influence of the social and cultural forces that shape who we are. It is almost certainly true that our personalities partly develop from cultural expectations around traditional gender roles. But over the past 15 years or so, new technologies have generated a growing pile of evidence that there are inherent differences in how men and women’s brains are wired and how they work. We do know now that some differences are innate: at seven months female babies focus more on faces than male babies, and even male baby monkeys prefer playing with cars.

The left side of the brain stores and uses what is known and deals with facts, with information in isolation, while the right brain is constantly on the look-out for what is new and engages with emotional information, with concepts as a whole. Sometimes the left side is referred to as “the male brain,” and the right side as “the female brain,” but this is a misleading oversimplification. A 2014 study found that the two hemispheres of a woman’s brain talk to each other more than a man’s do. Women’s brains consistently showed more strongly coordinated activity between hemispheres, while the men’s brain activity was more tightly coordinated within local brain regions.

There are a number of conclusions crucial to women being valued in organizations that can be drawn from these observations. Men, because of their brain activity, focus on problem-solving and outcomes, not readily taking the broader picture into account. Women may appear to lack focus, but the suggestion here is that they are scanning wider horizons. When applied to the workplace, this ability would be “big picture thinking,” seeing the impact of decisions on a large number of stakeholders, and taking relationships into account when solving a problem. This way of thinking is not lacking in focus, but rather a strength that can bring huge value to a team.

If the future of excellence in organizations and their capacity to retain talent lies in the quality of relationships and trust among employees, then it could be that women have a more intuitive understanding of such processes.

Power and testosterone

Dominance and power are often connected with the hormone testosterone. It is true that high-power alpha males in primate hierarchies have high levels of testosterone, and powerful and effective leaders also have high testosterone that makes them more motivated by competition and more optimistic when it comes to risk-taking. Women, on the other hand, have less testosterone, and a large number of studies have concluded that they are more risk-averse than men. Women approach risk while paying attention to facial expressions, body language, and unspoken words. In other words, they have more empathy when they take decisions.

In challenging times, however, high testosterone can actually undermine leadership by reducing this empathic accuracy and driving men toward over-optimism, most notably during the 2008 global financial crisis. A recent study used experimental games to examine how power and testosterone levels affected leader corruption over time. The study showed that those who had high levels of testosterone were most corrupt when they had high levels of power. In other words, power interacted with endogenous testosterone in predicting corruption. As you might suspect, women, who have lower levels of testosterone, were more resistant to corruption than their male counterparts.

This is not to say that any conclusions on whether women are “better” than men in leadership roles or vice versa should be drawn. Challenging situations demand leaders that have the flexibility to utilize an array of leadership qualities that includes risk-taking and high confidence, but also reading other people, listening to employees’ concerns, and then making one’s own decisions, along with guiding, inspiring, and protecting the group.

This points to the need for women to stay true to their own skills and values to be authentic. When we hear about empowerment in the workplace, what is often suggested is that to reach these levels of power women must act more like those who have long been historically empowered: men. Women are expected to embody the characteristics we often attribute to men in the workplace, as if these are the only characteristics that can contribute to professional success. But diversity in leadership is key to business success. Globalization has intensified the pressure and demands for competition and change, so companies that want to survive these challenging times need to find the way to spark innovation by harnessing the power of different ideas from diverse groups of people and tapping into a range of opinions, ideas, and experiences.

The final thing to remember is that it is very easy to hold gender as the marker for diversity within an organization, but it is not the only form of diversity. There is also cultural background, age, sexuality, disability, and most overlooked, diversity of thought and experience.

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