Diversity and inclusion is something I rarely thought about until I entered the workplace. As a woman pursuing a degree in computer science, I could count on one hand the number of females in my college classes, but I was always under the impression that gender was irrelevant at work. As someone also pursuing a degree in psychology, I should have known better.
As I started working in the context of collaborative teams rather than solo projects, it became apparent that women and men perceive and approach the world differently. Certainly, everyone responds in their own way, but from problem-solving to setting priorities, there’s a clear difference. And it’s far from a coincidence or purely the result of socialization.
If you’ve read the other posts in these series, you’ll know that diversity for the sake of having diversity holds little value. It’s not enough to simply be cognizant of the differences between the genders, it’s also vital to know precisely how those differences are expressed and what to do with them in order to begin to reap the benefits we’ve discussed.
How our brains are wired directly affects how humans perceive the world. It’s worth starting there to understand the basics. Though there are more than half a dozen distinct differences chronicled in both basic brain structure and chemistry between the genders (the technical term for this is “sexual dimorphism”)—for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on just three situations where there are notable differences:
When it comes to brain structure and problem solving, there are a couple of significant pieces of the brain at play: the anterior cortex and the corpus callosum.
The corpus callosum functions as the bridge between the two sides of the human brain—in popular culture we generally refer to them as the “artistic” and the “logical” sides. In females, the corpus callosum tends to be thicker. Since the thickness of the corpus callosum has been directly linked to neuronal activity, this means that the logical and creative side of an average woman’s brain tends to be more actively connected than the average man.
In the context of problem-solving, the anterior cortex “monitors and scores the steps involved in problem-solving” in order to allow a person to adjudicate the different variables needed to declare success in the face of a difficulty. The anterior cortex, similar to the corpus callosum, is smaller in men than in women. The real-life result is that men will often focus on a select group of variables, whereas a woman may be taking a broader range of factors into account when presented with the same problem.
The technical terms for how these physical differences and others combine to manifest themselves in thinking patterns are divergent and convergent thinking. Everyone utilizes both patterns at different times but will tend to favor one over the other. According to Gender Intelligence: Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line, a skilled divergent thinker can start with a single problem and find a host of possible solutions. A convergent thinker will start with a problem that seems ambiguous but will quickly hone in on a solution.
There are advantages to both patterns of thought, but there are also disadvantages. Majority divergent thinkers left on their own may get lost in the weeds of creative “what if” scenarios, whereas convergent thinkers may find themselves making a quick decision that doesn’t take into account a better option that was off the beaten path.
Females are stereotypically more risk-averse than males and for sound reason. In females, the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for how a person develops consequential thinking, or rather, a person’s ability to see how a situation will resolve itself – is typically larger and develops faster than in males.
One of the ways this difference in developmental speed and size manifests itself is in how a person responds to conflict. Women will tend toward win-win compromises: They’re thinking not only of the positive outcome but the possible negative consequences of the decision further along the line. In contrast, men—who typically have higher levels of testosterone, which has been shown to be linked to high levels of competitiveness—tend to take the wins into account and ignore the potential losses when making a decision.
As with the differences in problem-solving, neither gender is holding a perfect winning hand. It’s possible that a compromise won’t be best for an individual or that a quick decision will result in burned bridges. But if a balance can be struck between making thoughtful decisions in an efficient way? That sounds like a winning combination.
Stress at Work
Stress is one of many components of the work experience. Though most of us in the corporate world aren’t literally risking our lives when we go to work, the stress mechanisms that keep us from being eaten by lions are the same ones that activate when we have to pull long hours at work to meet an important deadline.
Though the mechanism that induces stress is the same in both genders, there’s a key difference in the response to stress at a biological level. In all humans, oxytocin is released in response to stressors. However, it is released in greater quantities in women who also typically have higher levels of estrogen. Estrogen acts as an enhancer to modulate oxytocin in a way that testosterone does not. Because of this enhancing effect, women tend to seek affiliation with other people (studies have shown that they typically seek other women) when stressed, whereas men tend to be more isolated.
Since work is consistently ranked as one of the top stressors in the United States, the different response mechanisms could partially explain why in the workplace women value relationships, respect, and communication significantly more than men, while men tend to value pay, money, and benefits significantly more than women.
Though it’s tempting to say that equality in the workforce in 2018 means treating everyone the same, that’s a sure-fire way to miss out on valuable opportunities to attract, retain, and engage employees.
- When you’re leading meetings, are you effectively leveraging both the brainstormers and those who like to get right to the point?
- In settings where recognition is given, do you find that you heap praise on both risk-takers and those who take a more cautious approach?
- Does your company culture foster healthy work relationships that can make the inevitable stress of work less taxing?
A final disclaimer: Even though the differences discussed here have a biological basis, there will be many people who fall outside the “norms.” There are plenty of risk-taking women and men who will take the time to patiently look at a situation from a hundred angles. Learning about how the “other” operates isn’t a free license to assume that everyone fits neatly into behavioral patterns, but it does lay the foundation for having informed conversations with your coworkers and employees about how to best utilize their thought processes for the benefit of both the individual and the company. Starting that conversation can seem difficult, but it can begin with two simple questions: “How would you go about doing this?” and “Why?”
References (Not all are cited in the piece)
- What Are We Thinking When We (Try to) Solve Problems?
- Correlation of Nerve Fibers in Corpus Callosum and Number of Neurons in Cerebral Cortex: An Innovative Mathematical Model
- Sex-Related Difference in Human White Matter Volumes Studied: Inspection of the Corpus Callosum and Other White Matter by VBM
- Sex Differences in the Functional Lateralization of Emotion and Decision Making in the Human Brain
- Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight
- What Men and Women Value at Work: Implications for Workplace Health
- American Psychological Association: Stress in America, the State of Our Nation 2017
- The Creativity Crisis
- Gender Intelligence
- How to Use Divergent and Convergent Thinking to Improve Your Work