Companies need a new paradigm for gender equality and diversity.
The feminist movement’s rallying cry of “we are equal” has been misconstrued as “we are the same,” but in the past several decades, science has become conclusive that men and women are
hardwired very differently from birth. (The authors are speaking in terms of gendered tendencies, a continuum where most people fall toward the middle of a bell curve.) While there are many areas of the brain where gender-based differences are evident, the following seven are the most striking and responsible for the most predictable behavioral patterns:
1. Corpus callosum: This bundle of nerves connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain is largely responsible for how people process information. It tends to be larger, shaped differently, and contains more nerve fibers in women than men. This is one reason that women tend to perform left- and right-brained activities simultaneously and engage in broader, web-like, contextual thinking. Men are more likely to focus on a single, sequential thought process and see one task through to completion without interruption, and are less likely to consider a problem from alternative viewpoints.
2. Anterior cortex: Women tend to have a larger anterior cortex, allowing for more complex thought patterns and the integration of memories and emotions into a bigger picture. It is responsible for intuition and gut instincts, but it is also known as the “worrywart” center of the brain. Women tend to approach risks with greater caution and calculation, which may produce greater anxiety and delay action. While men are more apt to take risks, sometimes they appear to do so blindly.
3. Insular cortex: This highly complex area of the brain influences people’s emotional responses to their surroundings, experiences of pain, and their sense of self. On average, it is twice as large in women as in men, making women significantly more sensitive to events, emotions, and the moods of others around them.
4. Hippocampus: With some functions similar to the insular cortex, the hippocampus is the center for memory and emotion and tends to be larger and more active in women. Women’s rich memory of past experiences can aid them in decision making, but also inhibit them from moving forward quickly. Conversely, men are more likely to take action confidently, but at times rashly.
5. Amygdala: Part of the limbic system, the amygdala is best known for the “flight or fight” reactions to fear, stress, or danger. It is highly influenced by hormonal activity and triggers behaviors such as competitiveness and aggression. The amygdala is larger, more active, and has a greater number of testosterone receptors in men’s brains. Men are better able to respond to stressors quickly, stay focused on the current situation, and take action without making connections to past events or emotions.
6. Prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex controls judgment, decision making, and consequential thinking. It tends to develop earlier in girls and is typically larger in women than men. This part of the brain also controls social behavior and acts like a brake on the amygdala’s more reflexive signals. This can change how women and men approach conflict resolution and negotiation; women tend to look for win-win solutions while men often assess a conflict as a competition and look for a way to be the victor.
7. Cerebellum: The cerebellum is important in motor control, coordination, precision, language, and regulating fear and pleasure. Working in concert with the amygdala, the cerebellum allows men to respond more quickly to sensory input and take action with greater self-assurance. Their larger cerebellum also means men tend to engage in more nonverbal communication (e.g., movement, physicality) than women typically do.
Additionally, men and women produce very different levels of the same hormones–notably testosterone, oxytocin, and cortisol–which accentuate the differences of their brains. Gender intelligence views these differences as a source of strength, but one that is being underutilized.
THE JOURNEY TO BECOMING A GENDER-INTELLIGENT ORGANIZATION
In the authors’ experience, an organization needs to understand and embrace seven “breakthrough insights” to become fully committed to gender intelligence:
1. Transformation begins with leadership. Gender equality and diversity cannot be a mandate given to HR and undertaken out of a sense of duty, compliance, or for the sake of appearance. If leaders do not embrace gender diversity as having strategic value, then companies will not see a sustainable change. A company’s leaders must initiate the shift in its ethos by becoming personally educated about gender differences, treating equality as a strategic priority, promoting the presence of men and women in all situations, and self-correcting assumptions and behaviors that inhibit diversity of thought.
2. Numbers don’t solve the problem. Simply meeting quotas or percentages gives companies the impression that they have done something, but they tend to obscure the high cost of turnover of female employees. One company finally took action when it discovered that its turnover of female talent was costing over $240 million per year. While men tend to leave companies for better positions or higher incomes, women tend to leave because they feel their contributions are consistently ignored or dismissed. This company discovered that in an effort not to burn professional bridges, however, women were stating that they left for “personal reasons.”
3. Meritocracies are not enough. Many leaders believe their companies are very gender intelligent because all employees are evaluated by the same standards, and advancement is purely meritocratic. What can be difficult to see are the ways in which advancement is “male-modeled,” and how evaluations are phrased in ways that describe how a man would exhibit a particular competency. For instance, “thinking strategically” will most likely manifest itself very differently in a female versus a male executive.
4. There’s a science to our differences. Companies need to understand that there are fundamental, hardwired differences between men and women and embrace those as complementary and equally valuable.
5. It’s not just about women. Too often, organizations focus solely on women’s initiatives; this tends to further isolate women and alienate men who see the initiatives as giving women preferential treatment. Gender intelligence can only be achieved through the conversation and participation of both genders.
6. Gender intelligence accelerates all diversity. Some business leaders fear that prioritizing gender diversity over other forms of diversity will be problematic. The authors suggest that leading with gender is important because (1) both genders will always be represented in the workforce while its cultural, ethnic, and racial makeup is always in flux; (2) issues with gender diversity tend to be rooted in misunderstanding of biological differences, while other diversity issues are rooted in social bias and discrimination; and (3) questioning assumptions and discovering gender blind spots tend to have a positive domino effect on other diversity issues.
7. Fear of stereotyping blocks progress. Most people are aware of and experience gender differences but are too afraid to discuss them for fear of being labeled discriminatory or stereotypical. Gender intelligence creates space for a discussion of differences, not stereotyping, that assigns value to both male and female styles.
The Gender Intelligence Continuum designed by the authors helps organizations visualize where they are on the journey to Gender Intelligence and highlights discrepancies between how men and women rate their current state. On the continuum, there are six stages that correlate with six attitudes:
1. Stage Zero: “We don’t care.” This is a company that sees no value in gender intelligence and views it as a distraction from more important tasks. The assumption at Stage Zero is that men and women are the same and that any lack of female representation in the upper echelons of the company is due entirely to women’s lack of desire or commitment.
2. Stage One: “We have to do this.” These organizations may have targeted recruitment of women, but they do so simply to comply with legal mandates or quotas. Leadership is not convinced of its importance, but begrudgingly accepts that it cannot be ignored and passes off the responsibility of compliance to HR. In such organizations, men are often resentful of what feels like reverse discrimination, and women are cognizant that their natural styles of work are valued in name only.
3. Stage Two: “It’s a good thing to do.” At this stage, companies have good intentions and put significant effort into gender diversity, but initiatives often falter because they are not viewed as having strategic importance. The focus is on a sense of obligation and fairness, not on how gender diversity could benefit the company. The public image of the company may be good, but the day-to-day work environment continues to send women looking elsewhere.
4. Stage Three: “We have business reasons.” These companies recognize that gender diversity is not only the right thing but the smart thing to pursue. They recognize the economic benefits of leveraging gender-diverse talent and see its positive effects in innovation, marketing, leadership, and other areas that impact the bottom line. This stage marks the crucial breakthrough needed to make gender intelligence sustainable.
5. Stage Four: “We’re in transition.” This stage can be challenging as companies discover what it means to view gender diversity not in numbers but as “diversity of thought,” and infuse every aspect of the company with gender intelligence. While the business case for gender intelligence has been recognized, the key is changing company culture to reflect that understanding.
6. Stage Five: “Authentically a gender-intelligent organization.” While they are few and far between, Stage Five organizations are gender intelligent to a point that they are not dependent on existing leadership to maintain it; gender intelligence is infused into all their functions, processes, and systems. They are continually evaluating how gender differences can be leveraged to make the company stronger.