By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published August 2007
Hitting the 'nodes' in a new way.
Are women more emotional, men more logical? Are women more focused on relationships, men more focused on tasks? Are men smarter, or are women smarter? These questions are now being addressed by neuroscientists, who are revealing ways to leverage the strengths of men and women at work so that new thinking will emerge.
Using a Gender Lens to See Clearly
The meeting was over, and everyone felt like this was one of the best decisions that they had ever reached. What made this meeting better? First, the men and women in attendance were gender-aware. They’d studied the natural ways that men and women process information, make decisions, discuss and listen, and they applied this knowledge to their conversations. While the challenge being addressed was fraught with conflict, they opened the space for the rich exchange of ideas; and out of this, new perspectives emerged—those that neither the men nor women had ever entertained before.
Neuroscience is opening up a new gender lens that gives leaders a way to dispel old myths, and gain insight into how to draw on best on men and women’s strengths. These studies enable us to examine how men and women think. They even give us startling insights that will change how we innovate, decide and converse at work.
As we combine women’s with men’s way of thinking and conversing, we create an emergent system, with new ways of perceiving and new possibilities. We’ll be hitting nodes in a new way and opening up new pathways.
Let’s look at what we’re learning about gender differences in order to cause “great music to be played.”
Differences that Matter
Listening: Women and men listen differently, in part due to our brain differences. Men and women listen differently based on how their brains respond to problem-solving, decision making, innovation, and relationship building, to name of few factors.
- How Women Listen: By nature, women are more interested in the journey—the conversation and the process of getting to the destination. They listen by connecting more data points, listening with a larger frame of reference, processing context, connecting data points, and listening for implications. Why? Women’s brains have a larger corpus callosum in the front where the frontal lobes reside. This may enable the greater verbal skills. The corpus callosum connects left and right hemispheres, enabling the two hemispheres to communicate rapidly and efficiently with each other.
- How men listen: Men are more interested in the destination. They often see the end point more quickly and want to get to the conclusion more quickly. Men listen with a more focused attention to solving a problem, making a decision or taking action quickly. Why? Men have more gray matter tissue in certain regions in the back of the brain where the visual spatial capabilities reside. Men have more compartmentalized listening—using the left-brain— while women have more web-based listening using both their left and right brains. Men listen to make a decision, to get the answer, or to fix a problem, while women listen first to get the broad context and explore the dynamics so they can make the decision with a broader perspective.
- What matters for women and men: Women have more white matter in their brains, men more gray matter. This structural difference—one focused on more connectivity, the other upon discrete processing nodes—appears to map to some interpersonal styles. There appears to be two different models for brain structure— each model adding important information and skill-sets to innovation, decision-making, and communication style.
Differences that Don’t Matter
In cognitive abilities, the differences between men’s brains and women’s brains is very small. So, both men and women, on average, are equally smart. Men and women’s IQs do not differ much—they just get there in different ways. Men’s brains are 10 percent larger, but the size does not equate to 10 percent greater intelligence. Men’s brains may have more redundancy of structure built in, perhaps to protect the male brain. Women’s brains, having less exposure to traumatic damage, appear to be more efficient; yet these structural differences do not translate into more cognitive abilities—or higher IQ for men.
Strengths Can Become Weakness
Your brain is built to masterfully handle complexity and to adapt to changes. Three things, common to men and women of all ages, make us human and give us our edge.
- We are masters at pigeon holing. We give labels (words) to things quickly. We define, we make meaning, and we do this rapidly. Since we have to generalize, we can assign incorrect labels. Yet labels are so powerful that they can blind us from seeing anything but the label we have assigned.
- Gender bender: Blindspots can cause us to stereotype others incorrectly. By stereotyping, we force people to conform to the labels and stop treating them as unique. Labels such as emotional or chatty or buttoned down can be gender biased labels that get in the way of us appreciating and leveraging each other’s real differences.
- Gender consciousness: To break out of generalizing and labeling, we need to interact with and work with a more diverse group of people. Inclusion and diversity practices breakdown the tendency to stereotype and create a forum for cross-gender collaboration, which builds respect into the culture and honors gender diversity in teams and relationships.
- We are a massive pattern-recognition mechanism. We classifying people into bins so that we can move through the complexities. We form comparables that give us a sense of safety and confidence. And we create patterns in our minds of how things work—patterns that give us roadmaps for navigating the complex words of decision-making. From this we can move forward with confidence.
- Gender bender: The risk with pattern- making is that we stop seeing what is taking place around us, and form male-centric or women-centric strategies and action plans that miss picking up the reality of changes. While these are our comfort zone ways of working, we may start to stereotype men and women thinking, “this is who they are all the time.” Old-boy and old-girl networks reinforce this way of thinking.
- Gender consciousness: To break out of habitual patterns, we need to bring men and women together to draw out the best of each when creating practices—building on the strengths each has to offer. The result will be more innovative and creative— as well as diverse workplace practices.
Becoming Gender Aware
Some of the differences in men and women’s brains are stereotypical and prevent us from performing at our best; others are real, and by understanding them, we can leverage the best we have to bring at the best time in the decision process. Knowing the real differences enables us to create an culture that leverages the strengths of both genders. In this “third eye” perspective, we can apply the science of gender at work, and catch ourselves when we are stereotyping or labeling and interrupt the pattern.
Being aware of possible Gender Benders, and interrupting the patterns, gives men and women a new sense of freedom and creativity to bring their best selves to work.
The highest state of being is to live as Dynamic Adaptable Systems—where we constantly form new connections based on new information. Stereotypical thinking—relying on assumptions—inhibits us from being the best leaders we can be.
When we’re gender aware, we create the best environment for the dynamic emergence of new thinking, sustain a state of dynamic resilience, and constantly update and refresh our brains with new information. In essence, we become incredibly resilient and adaptable. Like a jazz quartet that starts with a few notes and rif, we can honor the differences between the sexes and hit the nodes in a new and better way.
Leveraging assets makes the difference between success and failure. In fact, the ability handle complexity and ambiguity is most clearly correlated to profitability and success. Leveraging the strengths of men and women at work models the best way to leverage gender differences at work.