Women in Leadership: The Power of the Female Brain
How many times have you sat in a meeting and made a suggestion or a statement that gets you a few nonchalant head nods; then a man in the room makes the same suggestion and receives a round of applause and support? How many times have you been engaged in conversation with a group of men and realized nobody is making eye contact with you anymore and the men have created a bond that you just can’t infiltrate, so you sit quietly, shrink, and settle for observing after several attempts to engage? How many times have you been asked a question by a man, which you answer, and then the questioner bypasses your gaze to check in with another man for the “real answer”? How many times have you heard, “just get to the point”? If you’re a woman, I am confident you can relate.
I remember being a very young teenager in the mid-‘70s, intrigued by the older girls in our neighborhood, who marched up and down our street inciting us to join them in a bra-burning ceremony. Not fully understanding why we would do that, I tagged along to a cow pasture and watched as they took off their bras and hung them on the electric cow fence exclaiming “We are liberated!”
“I tagged along to a cow pasture and watched as they took off their bras and hung them on the electric cow fence exclaiming ‘We are liberated!'”
Years later I found myself in my first professional job in a highly male–dominated industry. I cut my hair short (and looked like my brother), invested in jackets with padded shoulders, and wore boas and narrow ties to the office as part of my attire. I wanted to fit in, have a voice, be respected, and contribute. I believed I had to look like a man and adopt male behaviors in order to be taken seriously for my intellect and contribution in my role. The bra-burning ceremony finally made sense.
For years, in various leadership roles, I believed that I would be a trailblazer who would break the glass ceiling for women. After decades of creating awareness and being a champion for gender equity and economic empowerment for women, it wasn’t until just recently that I had an “ah-ha” moment that has changed my perspective on gender equity.
“it wasn’t until just recently that I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment that has changed my perspective on gender equity.”
The only woman on the senior executive team, I was presenting a brand impact recommendation to my three, male, teammates, with whom I’ve worked for almost two decades. After my presentation, I listened to the feedback and heard responses that completely shut down my ability to participate further in the meeting and rendered me nearly unable to move. What I heard as feedback was: “I don’t care what you do because I don’t believe in brand;” ”In my world, when we say yes, you should just stop talking;” and “I just need the bottom–line hard numbers. Where are they?” as I saw a finger pointed in my direction. Frustrated and discouraged, it seemed as though I was having an out-of-body experience; I watched myself close my laptop, stand up, say quietly “I can’t do this anymore,” and walk out of the meeting. I felt unappreciated, demeaned, attacked, and resentful.
“it seemed as though I was having an out of body experience; I watched myself close my laptop, stand up, say quietly ‘ I can’t do this anymore,’ and walk out of the meeting.”
That same week, I had started reading Gender Intelligence, written by world-renowned research experts Barbara Annis and Keith Merron on how to maximize gender difference thinking as a strategic initiative to create higher-performing teams and businesses.
Having always believed, and still believing, that no man is above unconscious gender bias towards women (because it’s unconscious!), I realized that my colleagues’ responses were not intended to evoke a reaction on that debilitating day.
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Gender neuroscience and a shift in thinking
Some of it comes down to the neuroscience of male and female brains. Women are more contextual thinkers and processors, whereas men think in more linear terms. It reminds me of the caveman days of hunters and gatherers, when the men hunted for the kill while the women assessed the surroundings. My contextual presentation that day did not form a connection with the linear male audience. Neither of our needs were met and an opportunity for greatness was lost.
“My contextual presentation that day did not form a connection with the linear male audience. Neither of our needs were met and an opportunity for greatness was lost.”
The shift in my thinking on gender equality has moved away from the old feminist belief that women need to be the same as men in order to attain equity. My new understanding of gender inclusion is that a woman’s perspective and thought process should be embraced, honored, and amplified in the workplace. It’s good to think unalike! Embracing and complementing the scientific differences between male and female processing systems could move mountains in any organization or worldly environments if we could harness the power in difference thinking.
At a high level, continued neuroscience research suggests the following brain differences between men and women:
- The Corpus Callosum – This is where we process information. The corpus callosum is divided into two hemispheres—the left side is used for linear, logical, and serial thinking; and the right side generates intuitive, holistic and creative thought patterns. The two hemispheres are connected by a thick bundle of nerves. Women can travel this pathway of nerves more easily than men processing information which allows them to utilize both sides of the brain simultaneously; whereas men use each hemisphere sequentially.
- The Anterior Cortex – Typically larger in women than men, this part of the brain supports “women’s intuition” as a biological difference. It gives women the ability to integrate memories and emotions and arrange them into more complex patterns of thought.
- The Insular Cortex – This part of the brain influences our emotional response to our surroundings, aiding in the control of physical reactions such as heartbeat, blood pressure, and speech; and regulates our experience of physical responses. On average, it is twice the size in women than it is in men.
- The Hippocampus – Larger and more active in women than men, the hippocampus allows women to excel at articulating emotions, recalling memories, and dealing with emotional processing.
- The Amygdala – This governs the “fight or flight” response and is larger in men than in women, causing men to react more quickly to stressful stimuli.
- The Prefrontal Cortex – This part of our brain controls judgment, decision making, and consequential thinking and it develops faster and is larger in women than in men. This might explain why girls mature faster than boys.
- The Cerebellum – This is where our motor control lives and, combined with the amygdala in men, it helps them to respond rapidly to sensory input, focus on external factors, and take immediate action with greater physical coordination and confidence.
Studies have shown that these variations that occur throughout the brain inform and influence the different ways men and women communicate, listen, solve problems, make decisions, handle emotions, deal with conflict, and manage stress. Imagine the power and possibilities we’d
discover if we learned how to embrace and complement these differences rather than deem one more valuable than the other, or worse yet, not valuable at all.
“Imagine the power and possibilities we’d discover if we learned how to embrace and complement these [gender] differences rather than deem one more valuable than the other, or worse yet, not valuable at all.”
Let’s create a new business model
I am a woman who now embraces my femininity and the fact that I do think differently. I don’t want to look like a man, speak like a man, or behave like a man. None of us should ever have to transform ourselves to fit into “a man’s world” or the organizational operating system that was built by men. Organizations have not changed or evolved from the industrial revolution, where manufacturing operations were built by men and worked on by men. It worked exceptionally well when men filled all positions. Over the years, women joined the workforce, trying to fit into this male-oriented business model.
It is time to consider that this operating model may not fully embrace the difference thinking and value of both men and women. Imagine if it were reversed and the business model formed generations ago was developed by women for women, and in later years men joined the workforce. Can you imagine the difficulty men would have in that environment? We need to recognize that thinking “un-alike” may be more powerful than thinking “alike” and ensure that we build gender intelligent companies.
“It is time to consider that [our current business] operating model may not fully embrace the difference thinking and value of both men and women.”
There are many trailblazers who are changing the her–story in a culture of gender difference thinking. A few of my heroes, who were firsts in many male–created and –dominated spaces, are Mary Barra, the CEO of GM; Stacey Cunningham, the president of the New York Stock Exchange; and Sarah Thomas, the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game. My hope is that Sarah will feel confident, and that the NFL will honor her femininity AND knowledge of the sport, so that she doesn’t have to pin her hair up and tuck it under her hat to fit in and gain respect. Does she throw the flag like a girl? Maybe! Good for her!
Gender inclusion and difference thinking are not women’s issues. They are societal issues. We need the critical thinking skills of both men and women to advance our corporate cultures and move our companies and organizations forward. While the number of women in CEO and senior leadership positions pales in comparison to the number of men in those positions, and women still earn approximately 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, this isn’t about filling a quota or a gender equality scorecard. It’s about understanding our differences rather than having to tolerate them or become less authentic in order to succeed.
“Gender inclusion and difference thinking are not women’s issues.
They are societal issues.”
How we can all learn and grow
How can we learn from these experiences and how can we as women change the story in these situations? I don’t want any woman to find herself in the situation of wanting to shut down like I did the day I closed my laptop and left the room. I gave up out of frustration and out of lack of understanding.
Gender intelligence comes from understanding and appreciating the natural characteristics, behaviors, and talents that both men and women bring to the table. I’ve shifted my mindset and believe that most gender–bias behaviors are genuinely unintentional and unconscious, just like those of my male colleagues, and vice versa. Women too can have blind spots and hold gender–bias beliefs.
“Gender intelligence comes from understanding and appreciating the natural characteristics, behaviors, and talents that both men and women bring to the table.”
Since my “ah-ha” moment, my focus is not on gender oppression and the need for liberation, but a call for understanding, welcoming, and integrating difference thinking and diversity of thought with an intention to create awareness of gender inclusion.
Being ourselves and empowering other women to be themselves is a critical aspect to attaining this achievement. Femininity is power, not a weakness.
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