Men and Women’s Brain Differ – Leaders be Aware

When Science, the Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail all run a piece as they did in mid-November 2015, saying in big type that men’s and women’s brains are not really different after all, it’s very confusing for those who are certain they are, and as this column has been saying loud and clear.1 A lot hinges on whether they are or not – not least the whole argument about difference rather than equality being what is valuable in the executive market place.

Like so much in the modern reporting of neuroscience, it’s easier to go for the catchy headline than the scientific truth. So in case this magazine should be thought of as espousing a view that the most recent science has now proved ‘wrong’, a little unpicking of the situation seems to be called for.

The seminal study that men’s and women’s brains are very different in the ways they work came from the University of Pennsylvania at the end of 2013. Using a thousand brain scans of men and women, boys and girls, the composite connectivity scans that were very widely reported at the time gave remarkable visual evidence of how different are the internal worlds of women and men.

The organization of male brains showed very little connection between the two halves of the brain, with main pathways being organised in a front-to-back manner – ‘either/or and linear’, would be the simplest description of what was shown.

Female brains on the other hand showed an enormous functional interconnectedness between the two hemispheres. ‘Networked and inclusive’ describes the observable patterning very well.

If one bears in mind that the left side of the brain deals mostly with what is known, while the right side deals with the search for the unknown, then there are a number of conclusions crucial to the full valuing of women in organisations that can be drawn from these observations. They link closely to common observations about the differences between men and women but now have the virtue of a scientific basis for making extrapolated inferences.

The first such inference is that it looks as if men might be especially strong at problem-solving whilst women are solution seekers. There’s a big difference between those two modes of operating. Women, it suggests, are not especially fascinated by the completing of something as they see that as only an on-going part of a solution continuously re-defined. Men, on the other hand, focus on problem-solving and outcome (deriving a good deal of their identity from that too, not to mention excuses for celebrating) but don’t take the broader picture so readily into account.

A second inference is that in not being so problem-focused women may appear (to men) to lack focus. But the suggestion here is that they are scanning wider horizons. The person in the crow’s nest of an eighteenth-century merchant ship may not have had a hand on the tiller but was the first to spot land, a potential friend or enemy sail, see pirates slipping out of a Barbary coast harbor, or give warning of what was out of sight from the poop deck where the captain’s authority held sway. It may be that women are better strategic thinkers than organisations normally give credence for.

A third inference is that that no thought at all has been given to what organisational systems are needed to facilitate the working of women’s brains. This may become a major area for organisational development. If, as Laloux has suggested in Re-inventing Organizations, the future of excellence in organisations and their capacity to retain talent will lie in the quality of relationships, trust and self-regulating regard, then it may be that women have a more intuitive understanding of such processes than is vouchsafed to men. It’s not that men can’t learn them, but that they may be more spontaneously natural to women. We may be coming to the end of the area when, to progress in organisations, women have had to become the best men they can be.

All of these propositions could be put to empirical test. The future of management would then increasingly rely upon best facts rather than best guesses. The implications of these kinds of observations for leadership style also bear systematic consideration. And the list could go on and on.

But what if, as the reports first mentioned at the start of this column, are right and there is no real difference between men’s and women’s brains? That’s where a critical look at the uncritical reporting comes in.

What the reported study had been investigating was nothing to do with the way male and female brains function but whether there were some rather specific structural differences between them that could reliably predict which was a male or female brain. The researchers concluded that there were no such differences. The newspapers then said there are no differences between men’s and women’s brains, but entirely omitted the relevance of the question as to whether they operate differently.

It is of some academic interest as to whether there are structural differences. But there are major practical consequences of the fact that there are functional differences. In thousands of homes this season men may be the project managers, and need a great deal of praise for the way the tree was brought home and decorated so well; but most probably a woman will be making sure that everything comes together to make the festivities flow. It’s different brains that do it.

1) See by way of example.

December 2014, in “Developing Leaders
© 2017 P T Brown

By P.T. Brown PhD, Faculty Professor – Applied Neuroscience, Monarch Business School Switzerland; Chairman, Global Leaders/Executive Coaching Vietnam; Chairman of The ION Partnership (International Organisational Neuroscience); guest lecturer at the Fulbright EconomicsTeaching Program in HCMC; faculty at UK’s Royal college of Defence Studies; clinical and organisational psychologist and executive coach and supervisor. Co-author of „Neuropsychology for Coaches“, „Neuroscience for Leadership“ and „The Fear-Free Organization“.