Ah, our magnificent brains – that three-pound organ that rests between our ears. It dictates who we are, what we do, how and what we think, and we have no idea how it works. To understand the differences in behavior and leadership styles that women and men exhibit in the workplace, it is necessary to go to the point of origin – the brain.
When it comes to the brains of women and men the differences are quite remarkable. The variances between the female and male brain begin in their development in the uterus. Before birth, the female brain is flushed with estrogen hormones, while the male brain is washed with testosterone. As such, baby girls are more attentive to eye contact with their mothers while baby boys are more interested in the activity going on around them.
It is important to understand the workings of the brain in order to comprehend how women and men react differently in life and in the workplace. There are actual differences in the brain structure between women and men. Key parts of the brain are responsible for our ability to function in the working world.
The Amygdala is a small almond shaped body located deep in the brain in the temporal lobe – behind each ear. It has been shown to play a key role in processing emotions such as fear and pleasure. The amygdala is larger in men’s brain than in women’s brain. Also, men’s’ amygdales have testosterone receptors that heighten responses. Since the amygdala stimulates competitiveness, this explains why men can be so competitive and really enjoy the fight. A recent study by the University of Chicago found that men are 94 percent more likely than women to apply for a job with a salary potential that is dependent on out-performing their colleagues (upstart.bizjournalatwork).
Women and men react differently to the fear response of the amygdala. When the signal of fight or flight is triggered, women respond by gathering in groups – the tend and befriend response. Women are much better at reducing stress and feeling safe by connecting. Men however, tend to withdrawal to themselves. To quote Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster (Mean Girls At Work), “men are from the combat zone, women are from the support circle”.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is located in the front parts of the brain behind the forehead. It is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality, expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior. It is the executive function system of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is larger and matures faster in women than in men.
Women have more estrogen and less testosterone flowing through their brains enabling them to look for solutions to conflicts. One other distinction is that estrogen promotes the stress response within the prefrontal cortex. What this means is that when faced with a deadline, women will complete a project a week ahead of time in order to avoid the pressure and increased arousal a deadline brings. Men however, will wait until the last minute so they have the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine actually push them to finish. With the combination of brain structure, hormones, and neurotransmitters, it implies that women look for ways to compromise and serve the needs of others while men look for ways to come out on top.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex
This is another part of the rational decision-making center of the brain. The anterior cingulated cortex governs thinking and emotion. This is another region of the brain that is larger in women than in men. The anterior cingulated cortex has been labeled the ‘worry wart’ part of the brain in women. Its original function prompted women to be cautious and to protect their young. However, in today’s workplace this action is looked at as a lack of confidence by women with no risk-taking skills – especially by men driven by competitive testosterone.
The Corpus Callosum
The brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left side takes care of language and verbal skills and processes information in an orderly, logical way. The right hemisphere deals with visual and spatial information as well as abstract thinking and emotional responses. The corpus callosum connects both hemispheres. It is thicker in women enabling them to use both sides of the brain in a connected way. Because women have language and emotional centers in both hemispheres with a thicker corpus callosum to connect them, women can be more sensitive to and affected by harsh words and criticism in the workplace.
Finally, The Hippocampus
The hippocampus is a horseshoe shaped structure with one located in the left hemisphere and one located in the right hemisphere. The structure is critical to memory function. It not only forms new memories but it also sends memories to the appropriate area of the cerebral hemisphere for long-term storage as well as retrieving them when necessary. The hippocampus is larger and more active in women. It is estrogen sensitive and acts as a relay station for processing memories into words. Women actually have 11 percent more neurons than men in the brain center for language and hearing. This bodes well for developing executive communication styles, and sensitive negotiations. Women use language to develop consensus more efficiently than men. Men’s’ brains are more specifically organized to focus intensely and not be distracted by superfluous information (columbiaconnect.com, 2008).
One more word about the biology of the brain: in December 2013 a research report was released stating that the difference between women and men’s’ brains are actually hardwired. The research on brain connectivity was conducted on 949 individuals – 521 females and 428 males between the ages of 8 – 22. The distinction between the genders became apparent after adolescence. The study determined that females had many neural connections running from side to side between the left and right hemispheres in the prefrontal cortex area. The neural connections in the male brains ran from front to back on the same side of the brain. So what does this mean? Generally, it means that women are better at memory, social cognition tests, and intuition. Men are better at spatial tasks, navigation, and muscle control (Science Daily, Dec, 2013).
The difference between women and men’s’ brains are anatomical and physiological. They kept our primitive ancestors alive and maybe, properly equipping us for the modern workplace! Now that those differences have been scientifically validated, the behavior of women in the workplace should not be regarded as weakness but as effective leadership models. Science has made that decision.
Science has validated that women are equipped to be successful leaders in any capacity they choose. Then why is there such a gender gap in the C-suite in Corporate America and why are there so few females holding top political offices? To answer these questions Peter J. Kuhn and Marie Claire Villenal, both economic professors, studied why women and men perform so differently in the workplace.
The study was set up like this:
· Male and female students from undergraduate business and engineering schools were recruited to participate. They were to choose either team-based projects or solo projects. The teams had to be evenly mixed with males and females.
· First round of the study:
- Solo-based projects – there was no difference in the output between females and males
- Team-based project – performance remained the same – therefore no gender gap
- When evaluated on confidence of team mates’ abilities – women showed ‘much higher’ expectations and confidence in their partners than men did
· Second round of the study: incentivized output
- Solo-based project – paid on an individual basis
- Team-based: each team would be paid on output and they would choose their own teammates
- Women were more likely to choose a team compensated project than men as soon as payment was introduced.
- Women’s’ more generous belief about their partners’ abilities account for all of the gender gap choices
- Knowledgeable women simply aren’t as confident in their own abilities as men are, while men are too distrusting of their coworkers’ abilities and overconfident of their own
- This accounts for an abundance of women in the non-profit sector and found sparingly in top financial, economic, or political positions in modern society. Women stay away from competitive environments and flock to positions involving collaboration.
Gender differences in the workplace: women prefer collaboration, while men distrust their coworkers and desire to work alone (Medical Daily, Aug, 22, 2013).
Dr. Daniel Amen has a book titled “Unleash the Power of the Female Brain” where he states that women are hardwired for success. He makes a very compelling statement when he says that “the prefrontal cortex which controls judgment, organization, impulse control, and planning is more active in women”, suggesting that women are wired to hold positions of power and run the world. Through his research Dr. Amen has identified five particular strengths of women that play a key role in leadership: Empathy, Collaboration, Intuition, Self Control, and Appropriate Worry.
Anatomically women have the brains it takes to be extraordinary leaders. Neuroscience has revealed more to us about the brain in the past twenty years than all of history before that. It is important to note that through neuroplasticity our brains are constantly adapting to our environment. If women are continually told they cannot lead – they will not be leaders. But knowing that we are equipped for the challenge of leadership, our brains will positively react to the encouragement of leading. Nature v. Nurture: Nature has given us what we need – now we need to nurture female leaders.
Gender differences in the workplace: women prefer collaboration while men distrust their coworkers and desire to work alone. (2013, August 22). Retrieved Jan. 30, 2014, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/gender-differences-workplace-women-prefer-collaboration-while-men-distrust-their-coworkers-and-desire-to-work-alone.html.
Lean in and why women’s’ brains are wired for leadership. (2013, March 29). Retrieved October 28, 2013, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-amen-md/lean-in-and-why-womens-br_b_2974570.html.
Men vs. women: why the work divide matters. (2013, Jan.10). Retrieved January 30, 2014 from http://upstart.bizjournals.com/resources/author/2013/01/10/male-versus-female-behavior-at-work.html
The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are better at map reading. (2013, Dec 3). Retrieved Jan. 30, 2014, from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/the-hardwired-difference-between-male-and-female-brains-could-explain-why-men-are-better-at-map-reading-8978248.html.
Understanding ourselves: gender differences in the brain. (2008). Retrieved Oct. 28, 2013, from http://www.columbiaconsult.com/pubs/v52_fall07.html.