Delusions of GenderThose of you reading popular science books or media articles about gender will have most probably formed an opinion that male and female brains are wired differently in utero and that these different brains create different minds.

In a fantastic read, Cordelia Fine’s work ‘Delusions of Gender’ seeks to unravel these assumptions and show just how unproven they actually are.

With chapter titles such as ‘sex and premature speculation’ (which the immature part of my own brain found highly amusing), she shows just how hastily conclusions are being made about the brain’s potential – perhaps just as the Victorians attributed intelligence to measures such as skull volume and brain weight.

For a start, brains are inextricably linked to the social context in which they develop and function.  How can we be sure that the differences seen in brain imaging aren’t a result of a lifetime of living in a society with very clear gender expectations?  What if sex differences in the brain were preventing sex differences in behaviour by compensating for the physiological differences?  What if smaller numbers of neurons are compensated by greater transmission capabilities of the neurons?

Attempting to summarise the thorough research analysis in to a few key points feels reductive and clumsy; and yet most won’t have the time or inclination to sift the research yourselves.  And this is what makes some of the current claims so scary – they quickly become part of the culture in which our brains and minds develop.  The results seem intuitive, gender expectations continue to be learned quickly and are then primed by the social context.

I’ve seen this borne out in the research I’m doing in the corporate world.  Talk to anyone about why there should be more women on the board, and they say that women are better at developing people and they are more empathetic.  I get it, I really do.  It’s easier to convince senior leaders of a business case in which women are going to bring something different to the boardroom table.  I’ve been guilty of sneaking in a ‘research suggests that women make empathetic leaders’ type comment just to get in the door.

Unfortunately there’s also a lot of research that shows that women don’t actually make more empathetic leaders.  It’s pretty hard to measure empathy.  Women are certainly more likely to say they are empathetic – but is this because of the gender expectations on them right from the start of their lives?  Is that because the popular media is constantly telling us that women are more empathetic?

The problem is that these scientific explanations (based on flimsy science according to Fine) make their way in to our culture and then impact the decisions that women make – thus continuing to fuel the so called differences between the sexes.  Women are more likely to choose careers requiring caring for people and empathy that, incidentally, seem to be the lowest status ones.  Those not displaying empathy are harshly criticised (perhaps as ‘ball breakers’).  In many instances a limitation on capabilities is implied – if you are empathetic then it is implied that you can’t make the hard choices when they’re needed, that you won’t be able to make unpopular decisions.

The reporting of the science in the popular press continues to place an expectation of how to behave and what choices to make dependent upon gender.

I certainly think a greater amount of empathy in the boardroom would be a wonderful thing.  But… I don’t think it’s solely the role of women to bring that empathy in.  And I think women can bring so much more to the board room table besides.