Are Male and Female Brains Wired Differently?

Posted on April 10, 2014. Filed under: Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Tara Neven, co-founder and director of neuresource group and an expert on human capital and organisational change, looks at the brains of men and women in the workplace and how to harness the best each has to offer in order to inspire truly revolutionary 21st Century leadership.

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(photo: by Letch for The Age)

(photo: by Letch for The Age)

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It’s a question debated in boardrooms and bedrooms around the world. Ask any man or any woman, and the answer to the question will be a resounding “Yes, obviously there’s a difference!”

Thinking of this age-old conundrum takes me back to a great film called “A Tale of Two Brains” by marriage expert Mark Gungor.  Gungor addresses in an amusing way how the brains of men and women are different. It’s obvious to everyone that they act differently, communicate differently, unwind differently, and most importantly, they think differently. Here’s an excerpt:

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Nature v nurture

In 2006, Louann Brizendine, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and director of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, published The Female Brain and followed it in 2010 with The Male Brain. Both sold like hotcakes. It seems that everyone is looking for scientific explanations to account for the observable differences. Brizendine runs through the expected gamut of material: the reasons a woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened, for example; the number of times thoughts of sex enter a woman’s brain (twice a day) compared to a man’s  (once every few minutes); the fact that a woman’s brain goes on high alert during pregnancy – and stays that way long after giving birth, and how this affects the men around her.

Like Gungor, Brizendine is breezy with generalisations. While this might be interesting to read if you’re looking for confirmation of long-held beliefs, it does very little to explain differences or to progress gender issues in the workplace. Like many researchers, Gungor and Brizendine are focusing on the differences and finding answers to account for them.

The other camp focus on the similarities, and they too find valid explanations. Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Aston University in Birmingham,  says: ”You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain or that’s a boy’s brain’ in the same way you can with the skeleton. They look the same.”

Speaking on International Women’s Day recently, Professor Rippon claimed that any differences in brain circuitry only come about through the ”drip, drip, drip” of gender stereotyping. ”The bottom line is that saying there are differences in male and female brains is just not true,” she said. ”There is pretty compelling evidence that any differences are tiny and are the result of environment not biology.”

sexism cartoonHer claims are supported by other research. In one large study, conducted by the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort, a National Institute of Mental Health-funded collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania Brain Behavior Laboratory and the Center for Applied Genomics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers found only a few gender differences in the connectivity in children younger than 13 years, but the differences were more pronounced in adolescents aged 14 to 17 years and even more so among young adults older than 17. This sounds a lot like the drip, drip, drip of cultural stereotyping in action.

If you believe the first camp, it’s all nature; if you believe the second, it comes down to nurture.

I propose that we are approaching this all wrong. In fact, it’s this kind of thinking lends itself to further stereotypes as well as to a dangerous complacency. Managers may be convinced that there’s nothing to be done about gender differences in the workplace. In response, they either maintain the status quo or create a culture that seeks to level talents, skills, and ambitions of all employees. Both solutions are unsatisfactory.

Moreover, this way of thinking overlooks two important facts: one is that the differences between the brains of men and women are complementary, and the second is that the human brain is highly plastic.

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Complementary strengths

The fact that men and women’s brains work together in complementary ways is a truly powerful insight!

Some complementary differences:

1. Women have stronger social circuitry, their “mirror neurons” (which everyone has) are slightly thicker and enable an ability to intuit the emotions of others more effectively. These mirror neurons also work faster in social situations for women. Women’s mirror neurons are wired to empathise, where as men’s are more likely to systemise or create a set of logical rules about someone else’s behavior.

2. Women have larger areas in the brain that are associated with decision making and emotional regulation. While the male brain is larger on average, parts of the frontal lobe used responsible for decision making and problem solving are larger in women. Men solve problems and make decisions based on the potential reward and then turn off afterwards. On the other hand, the female brain thinks about the reward consequences, even after the decision has been made, which has the long-term effect of forging stronger neural connections in the pre-frontal cortex.

3.Women have four times the neural connections between the left and right hemispheres than men. This ‘whole-brain thinking’ concept allows women the ability to create detailed visions of possible futures as well as the steps required to get there. It also provides heightened language-associated thinking. Men, on the other hand, have stronger connections within the individual hemispheres, which makes the particular task or role connected to one or the other hemisphere to be heightened. (As Gungor explains, men think in boxes while women think in connections).

It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are. If managed properly, it could actually create a more powerful working environment. Imagine the strength of a workplace that has the capacity to engage the full range of the human brain’s capability. As long as the skills and talents of the sexes are used more in synergy and less in conflict, this is easily possible.

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Neuroplasticity

Additionally, the brain has an incredible ability to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, and to rewire. As Rippon acknowledges, ”What often isn’t picked up on is how plastic and permeable the brain is.” Unfortunately, she also points out, “The world is full of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias.”

So, we have a choice. We can either continue as we are, engendering stereotypes in schools and in the workplace, searching for gendered explanations in our scientific research, or we can acknowledge the differences and reshape the work culture, something that will, in turn, reshape brains of both men and women alike. More directly, we can also draw on the power of the brain’s plasticity to change entrenched habits and biases on a daily basis.

The brain’s neuroplasticity a phenomenon freely available to all with the wisdom to utilise it.

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The answer?

In short, the answer to the question is: ‘Yes, male and female brains are wired differently’.

However, the fact that the science is showing most of these differences are due to cultural conditioning rather than innate physical characteristics means we have much more control over creating the working conditions and the kind of leadership we want. At the same time, to value what thousands of years of cultural conditioning have yielded is also important. Acknowledging differences and using them to create a more dynamic, inclusive, multi-cultural environment for all is entirely possible.

The fact that the brains of men and women are conditioned to work together in complementary ways combined with what we know of neuroplasticity means that we are not as chained to nature and nurture as we once thought. If we re-shape cultural norms and expectations, we also re-shape the brains of those within that culture. At the same time, it’s important to realise that women bring something to the workplace that men don’t necessarily have. We don’t want to lose that by creating a culture that alters what women can contribute.

We need to look at the ways in which male-dominated workplaces fall short, invite women in, and create a culture that helps everyone develop responses, behaviours, and habits that support positive and sustainable change.

By acknowledging the differences and valuing the contributions of each, it’s not only possible to take the best of both in order to create effective, positive, inclusive leaders, it’s also necessary.

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Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 9.23.30 AM.Tara Neven is the co-founder/director of neuresource group.  As an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development, and collective leadership specialist, Tara has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development. The last 10 years of this experience has been in remote and regional areas of Australia. Tara’s primary industry experience has been in the mining and resource sector, construction, local government and medium-to-large organisations.

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2 Responses to “Are Male and Female Brains Wired Differently?”

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[…] Are Male and Female Brains Wired Differently?. […]

I know from working with people for years – men and women have differences; the significance in reporting the differences is difficult – this is well done


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