This column first appeared in Slaw.ca where I write a monthly column on issues of interest to women (and hopefully male) lawyers.
“Leadership and the Sexes”: How Women’s and Men’s Brain Work Differently.
There are so many books being written on leadership today and especially on how men and women lead differently. Very often, these books focus on how we are socialized to behave differently both at work and in personal relationships. However, brain science is now showing us that male and female brains are actually neurologically “wired” differently so that how we make decisions, handle stress and conflict, observe our surroundings, communicate, express emotions – everything we think, feel and do – depends on whether we have a female or a male brain.
While I have long suspected that we are more than the product of our environments (although environment plays a role as well) – this is the first time that I have understood how fundamental the differences between the sexes, truly is.
Recently, I attended an Advanced Coaching Conference in Santa Barbara at the Hudson Institute where I did my executive coach training. I went primarily to hear Barbara Annis the co-author (along with Michael Gurian) of “Leadership and the Sexes”. This book has completely altered my understanding of gender differences. For the first time, much of what I suspected about how differently men and women behave and think, I now see as in-born and not just how we were raised in our families and culture. This is a book that I think everyone should read.
To give a very brief summary – in the 1990’s scientists realized for the first time that male and female hearts were not identical organs. Up until then it was thought that a woman’s heart was identical to and functioned the same as a man’s heart but was just smaller to fit the smaller female body. This discovery that the female heart is different than a man’s was important because it showed that men and women experience heart attacks differently and women need to watch for different warning signs.
Given that hearts function differently, scientists thought what about other organs? The ability to scan the human brain while we are making decisions, under stress, feeling emotional, at rest, multi-tasking or focusing on a task – showed that different parts of the brain are neurologically active depending on whether it is a female or male brain being scanned.
Barbara Annis described – through a lively and inter-active day – that the more we understand how differently women and men think and react, the better we can work together and create more successful organizations. If you go to her website (www.baainc.com) you can watch a five minute video of part of her presentation. Her remarkable book is very easy to read and includes practical steps at the end of each chapter on how to create more gender intelligent workplaces.
Here is a small sampling of the many differences between men and women (from the Introduction to “Leadership and the Sexes”.)
• The male brain enters a rest state many times per day, but the female brain does not shut down in the same way; as a result, women and men generally have different approaches to paying attention, completing a task, de-stressing, becoming bored and even having basic conversations.
• The female brain processes information and experiences to different parts of the brains at different times than does the male; the genders are equally intelligent but intelligent in different ways. Thus, we often see women and men focused on different things, ideas, outcomes and even products.
• The male memory centre is generally less active than the female’s during emotional and relational experiences in the workplace. These is also less linkage in the male brain between the memory center and the work centers of the brain which is one reason men are less likely than women to talk about their emotional and relational experiences.
• Men and women can both be great at negotiating but they may get to the end result in significantly different ways due differences in their brain function.
• Women use more words than men when you include reading and writing and not just speaking. Women tend to read and write more than men.
• Women see colour and fine details more easily than men while men see physical motion of objects more easily.
• The links between the emotional centres of the brain are linked differently for women to their thought processing and communication centres. Thus a man might need many hours to process a major emotion-laden experience, whereas a woman may be able to process it quite quickly. This often creates a lot of tension between women and men.
Here a few simple behavioral examples taken from “Leadership and The Sexes”
“For Women – Understanding Men’s Behavior in Meetings
• Because a man’s brain frequently goes into rest mode, men may keep themselves awake by what might appear to be fidgeting – clicking a pen, tapping, looking away and the like.
• Because men’s brains often process fewer words than women’s brains process, men are more likely to zone out if discussions become lengthy or wordy. The appearance of this “zoning out” can make it seem like the man is not interested or doesn’t care.
• Because men’s brains are wired to be more aggressive, men will sometimes dominate a meeting. The meeting leader often forgets this and does not involve all participants so all opinions are heard.
For Men – Understanding Women’s Behavior in Meetings
• Because a women’s brain is wired to cross-connect information from both hemispheres, women are more likely to move from what appears to be one topic to another that seems unrelated, though they may actually be “connecting dots” that very much need connection during a project.
• Because women’s brains are wired to be less competitively aggressive and more fostering of interdependence in a group setting, a number of women in a meeting may feel unvalued if their opinions and views are not specifically sought out.
• Because women are generally wired to be more attentive to process, the gender-intelligent leader is challenged to set a pace and establish tacit and overt rules that both allow adequate discussion time and keep the meeting focused and moving forward.
Practical tips for women:
• Use concrete words targeted to specific outcomes.
• End fewer sentences with an upward (questioning) inflection.
• Ask what he thinks, rather than what he feels.
Practical tips for men:
• Don’t discount anyone’s opinion – listening doesn’t mean agreeing.
• Seek opinions from both male and female participants.
• Listen more carefully, control anger.
While these examples deal only with how to run more gender-balanced meetings, there are many more examples that will help create more successful workplaces. It is also important to remember that about 20% or each gender has what Annis calls “bridge brains” – brains that have many of the qualities and will react more like the opposite gender.
Why is any of this important?
It’s important because male behavior is often taken as the norm or the standard that all lawyers – both women and men – are expected to demonstrate. Women’s approach to negotiating or problem solving is often seen as less effective than a man’s because it is different. This is often the main reason that women lawyers feel less valued in law firms. Women then choose to leave in order to work in environments that value a more female approach to solving legal or workplace issues. Men and women are equally intelligent – we just achieve success in different ways. The more that we understand each other better, the more we can use each gender’s strengths to create better results for our clients and more successful practices.