Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man? IT'S ALL IN YOUR BRAIN
(FORTUNE Magazine) – As men age, they lose their brain cells at rates up to three times faster than women. Then again, men typically have more brain cells to lose. Please keep those biologically uncontested facts in mind as you read what follows.
Neurophysiologists, endocrinologists, and cognitive psychologists increasingly--and persuasively--argue that men and women are wired to think and feel differently. Around the world a serious scientific debate intensifies: Are the genuine brain-based distinctions between the sexes simply variations on a theme? Or do they represent fundamental differences in thought, emotion, and capacity?
For businesses struggling to balance culture and competitiveness, few managerial questions loom more important or more combustible. Women have played a growing role in the post-industrialized workplace for more than a generation. They seem destined to play an even bigger role in the future. If women managers are pretty much like their male counterparts, then gender considerations are marginal concerns. But if the typical female brain truly manages information, emotion, and relationships differently than the typical managerial man's, then organizations would be foolish to treat them as if they're the same. If these bio-differences are real, gender differentiation presents genuine opportunities for competitive advantage.
Consider, for example, "mass customization" and personalized service. In such a market environment, the ability to empathetically interact with customers and clients becomes more valuable. If women are more temperamentally compatible with those kinds of relationships than men, then they stand to reap the benefits. And, indeed, studies from brain researchers Raquel and Ruben Gur at the University of Pennsylvania indicate that women may be far more sensitive to emotional cues and verbal nuances than men.
Similarly, where cross-functional collaboration is the medium for managing innovation, then individuals most comfortable with facilitating discussion and smoothing conflicts may be best suited to run them. As peer-reviewed research affirms that female managers typically display those virtues more consistently than men, project team leadership will shift. At the very least, companies must start seriously examining where and how female managers are more effective than their male counterparts--and vice versa. What do companies do when their 360-degree reviews reveal stark differences in the way male and female managerial styles are perceived?
That top business schools, like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, will offer single-sex advanced management programs seems inevitable. That General Electric's executive-development facility and Motorola University will feature peer-reviewed content detailing distinctions between male and female managerial styles seems obvious. The essential difference from today will be that tomorrow's curriculums will be based on empirically grounded insights into the biology of gender differences. Professional development will build upon the biological differences that can create value in the workplace.
Perhaps the most significant review of gender-based standardized testing differences, analyzing 32 years of results, was published in Science magazine in 1995. According to University of Chicago researchers, boys outnumbered girls by three to one in the top 10% in mathematics. In the top 1%, there were seven boys for every one girl. Are those proportions solely an artifact of American culture? Can culture overwhelmingly explain why women are so underrepresented professionally in mathematics and the so-called hard sciences? Is culture really the dominant reason women are disproportionately represented at the top of professional societies focusing on human/computer interface design and computer-supported cooperative work? Or does gender biology merit further exploration as a cause?
Intriguingly, the girls kicked butt on the verbal side of the standardized tests. On average, girls displayed significantly superior writing skills--ouch!--with twice as many boys as girls at the bottom of the test scores and twice as many girls at the top in reading comprehension. Is culture the villain/hero here too? At what point does ignoring genuine differences between the genders become a form of discrimination in itself? Ultimately the reality of gender biologies will force a trimming of America's thickets of EEOC rules and regulations.
The gender management issue comes down to this: Will tomorrow's businesswomen succeed by becoming more like men or less? Research over the past 20 years reveals that professional women tend, on average, to have higher testosterone levels than those who stay at home. But it's not clear whether those higher testosterone levels are a cause or a result of choosing to participate in the workplace.
The obvious danger, of course, is that these bio-biases become excuses to create or perpetuate gender stereotypes that deny more opportunity than they create. So be it--there will always be those who look for any reason they can to discriminate. That's hardly a novel organizational challenge. The real question organizations should ask themselves is whether they believe issues of gender difference will become more or less important to themselves and their customers over the next decade. No matter how rapidly you are losing brain cells, there is only one honest answer.
MICHAEL SCHRAGE is a Merrill Lynch Forum Innovation Fellow and a research associate with the MIT Media Lab. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.