Ostensible differences between male and female abilities – from reading maps to multitasking, from verbal skills to expressing emotion – are claimed to be based on variations in the hard-wiring of brains at birth. This belief has become widespread, particularly in the wake of publications like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Whatever the supposedly ‘typical’ male or female behaviour, there seems to be no shortage of people who claim there is scientific evidence about the fundamental differences between men and women. These advocates claim that evolutionary differences separate the intellects of men and women, and it is all down to our ancient hunter-gatherer genes that program our brains.
Certain researchers have found that corporate decision-makers often stereotypically assume that women lack the personality characteristics necessary for top leadership roles. This predisposition is based on the assertion that women are naturally nurturing and cannot make tough decisions.
While the number of women entering managerial positions has steadily increased, the position of “manager” continues to be identified within masculine terms. Research reveals that because masculine characteristics are identified with managerial effectiveness, like aggressiveness and competitiveness, men are perceived as more capable, more acceptable and are preferred for management positions.
Relatively few women reach senior executive positions and those who do, often have communication styles usually associated with traditional male management paradigms, demonstrating what has been termed the “Thatcher factor.”
The traditional patterns are male patterns and as CNN news Executive Gail Evans noted: “Men know the rules of business because they wrote them.” Thus, “most cross-gender communication problems in public contexts are women’s problems, because the international rules in such situations are men’s rules’. Not only are the problems women’s, but women themselves can be constructed as ‘the problem’.”
For those who believe that such distinctions are based on delusions of gender, then Dr Cordelia Fine is your woman! Dr Fine, a psychologist and associate professor based at the University of Melbourne, asserts that there is no convincing evidence that our brains are hardwired according to gender, and no such thing as “biological destiny.”
Claims that men are naturally analytical and competitive while women are compassionate and nurturing are, according to Dr Fine, based on bad science – and, at worst, are “monstrous fictions” that are standing in the way of greater sex equality.
Termed ”neurosexism,” Dr Fine believes the deceptiveness of such sex differences is a “modern version of the tired old sexist ideas about a woman’s proper place.”
The popular focus on innate intellectual differences between the sexes is, in part, a response to psychologists’ emphasis of the environment’s importance in the development of skills and personality in the 1970s and early 1980s. This led to a reaction against nurture as the principal factor in the development of human characteristics and to an exaggeration of the influence of genes and inherited abilities. This view is also popular because it propagates the status quo.
Between the two extremes – that either men and women are completely different or that all apparent differences are artificial constructs, some take a mid-way position. Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, has identified some talents that women express more regularly than men; aptitudes that stem, in part, from women’s brain architecture and hormones. Interestingly, these are skills that leadership theorists now espouse as essential to leadership effectiveness.
Men are more likely to focus their attention on one thing at a time. They tend to compartmentalize relevant material, discard what they regard as extraneous data, and analyse information in a more linear, causal path. Dr Fisher calls this Step Thinking.
As they make decisions, women tend to weigh more variables, consider more options, and see a wider array of possible solutions to a problem. Women tend to generalize, to synthesize, to take a broader, more holistic, more contextual perspective of any issue. They tend to think in webs of factors, not straight lines, so Dr Fisher coined a term for this broad, contextual, feminine way of reasoning: Web Thinking.
With the growing complexity and sharpening pace of the global marketplace, more companies are likely to need employees who possess web thinking attributes. In this highly complex marketplace, a contextual view is a distinct asset. Women are built to employ this perspective.
What is important about gender differences is not whether they arise from social structure or from brain structure, a misleading distinction, but that they are not inevitable, and they can be changed.
Lise Eliot, of Chicago Medical School, concurs suggesting that ”we are being told there is nothing we can do to improve our potential because it is innate. That is wrong. Boys can develop powerful linguistic skills and girls can acquire deep spatial skills.
Eliot asserts that “children don’t inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.”
Thus our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes, and those who claim otherwise are perpetuating old-fashioned stereotypes with a facade of scientific credibility.