Volume #52, Fall 2007
Understanding Ourselves: Gender Differences in the Brain
What a difference a brain makes - small changes in the brain can show up in big ways in life. If you've read my last two newsletters you'll see that this year the focus of my newsletters has been on the brain. This issue examines gender differences in brain structures and hormones that contribute to behaviors in the workplace. I emphasize the word contribute because our behavior is based of a number of factors, including evolution, biology, our developmental environment, and the choices we make. As I pointed out in my last newsletter, we can change the wiring of our brains through practice, but first we need to understand how men and women use their brains differently.
Differences Begin Early
Estrogen and testosterone influence brain development, although the process of the way in which hormones and the brain interact to influence behavior is very complex. Louann Brizendine, MD, author of The Female Brain, points out that gender differences start before birth: female brains are flushed in utero with estrogen hormones, while male brains are washed with testosterone. Females begin studying faces as babies, which shapes their brain development. Research demonstrates that the skills of baby girls in making eye contact and facial gazing increases over 400% in the first three months of life, while facial gazing skills in boys doesn't. In one study, year-old girls looked at their mothers faces 10 to 20 times more than boys checking for signs of approval or disapproval. While the boys, driven by testosterone, moved around the room to investigate their environment and rarely glanced at their mothers.
During puberty, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone continue influencing development. Teenage girls, flooded with estrogen, get stressed around relationships and ease their fear by banning together and being socially connected. Yes, they can be mean and use their language skills - passive aggressive rumor spreading - to undermine rivals in their competition for the boys (from an evolutionary perspective sexual competition is part of the survival mechanism). But they can apologize and re-bond when necessary. Testosterone flooding the brain of teenage teen boys has the opposite effect: the teenage boy wants to be left alone. He's not interested in conversation because testosterone decreases his desire to socialize except in pursuit of sex or sports. Teenage boys at this time get stressed around challenges to their independence and authority and seek to be respected and find their place in the male pecking order through competition and conflict. They don't look for connection in same way as girls do. These are brain-based behavioral patterns that continue to influence men and women throughout adulthood.
Evolution: The Historical Perspective
It is believed that women's ability to read faces enabled them not only to interpret what a child who couldn't yet speak needed, but also enabled them to predict what a bigger more aggressive male was going to do so that they could protect themselves and their children. Protection was essential: if a woman could band together with other women she was in a better position to protect her children and fend off any attacks. Women's brains, according to Brizendine, were programmed to keep social harmony.
Men on the other hand were programmed to compete in order to reproduce and pass on their genes. In Sex on the Brain, Deborah Blum, sums up the basic beliefs of evolutionary psychology this way: "We descend from a mating system in which males must compete hard in order to become fathers, and in which females work hard to raise and support the young. That male reality demanded aggression and rules with which to contain it - hierarchy, competition, dominance. The testosterone drive is part of that. While females also had to compete, sometimes for mates and sometimes for food, their primary goals were social support, child care, and child protection."
The present problem is that our environment has changed dramatically; yet, our brains, still influenced by these hormones, haven't changed as quickly.
Gender-Driven Behaviors at Work
This ability of the female brain to read others and strive for connection pushes women to be more alert to others' reactions and to look for the approval that will create relationships. Deborah Tannen's research on gender differences in the workplace demonstrates that women in Western business cultures still seek eye contact and watch people's faces seeking cues for approval or disapproval. Men can interpret this behavior as a sign of insecurity rather than a skill of observation and assessment.
The same research indicates that men position their bodies in conversation differently than women, turning sideways or standing shoulder to shoulder in contrast to face-to-face. Women who desire that face-to-face connection can interpret this male body language as a demonstration of lack of interest and listening. These interpretations can escalate: if a woman misinterprets the male body posture as lacking interest or approval, her insecurity buttons can get pushed. This in turn reinforces the male interpretation that the woman lacks confidence. Women, attuned to reading body language, must understand what male body language means in today's world and learn how to manage their own emotional triggers. Otherwise, a woman can find herself caught in a downward confidence spiral.
Men, driven by a need to compete even in subtle ways with each other, can view a woman as less of a leader if she doesn't take a competitive stance. I have coached women whose male bosses have told them they are not aggressive enough. One client's boss told her she needed to fight more in meetings. He wanted her to show her strength in a way that he would and judged her accordingly. But the psychological stress of conflict registers more deeply in the female brain, so it wasn't surprising that my client didn't know what to do with this information. She was competitive (a marathoner and tri--athlete) and a successful businesswoman, but she wasn't going to attack others and get in verbal fights. She wanted to connect, not separate by flexing her muscles to find a space in the male hierarchy. Men need to be more aware of these differences, especially in situations where there might be only one or two females present, for example, at the upper most layers of most organizations. Women have had to learn how to cope with men jockeying for position, but find it very tiresome. It would be beneficial for men to recognize the value of learning less competitive behaviors to decrease the political maneuvering at higher levels of organizations, especially if they want diversity at the top. One of the key reasons women leave organizations is that they don't want to engage in the political power struggles that occur at the top layers, which they see as energy draining and counterproductive.
Differences in Brain Structures
The amygdala is an ancient part of the brain, influenced by hormones, that processes fear, triggers aggression and action, and stimulates competitiveness. It alerts us to danger and switches on the rest of the body. The amygdala in men's brains is larger than in women's. Moreover the male amygdala has testosterone receptors that heighten responses, providing a biological reason for why men compete with each other more aggressively than females and why men can quickly escalate situations and enjoy the fight.
Men and women respond differently to fear signals coming from the amygdala. When the amygdala fires a fear signal, a "fight or flight" reaction is triggered. We have now learned, however, that women's response can be different from men's: women's hormones, based on the evolution of their brains, tell them the way to safety is to gather in a group. So their response can be "tend and befriend." Women can reduce stress and promote a feeling of safety by connecting. When I wrote Success on Our Own Terms in the late '90s, one senior executive female told me that when she is stressed she needs to get out of her office and talk to others, while she noticed that the men at her level who were stressed tended to withdraw into themselves. What's important, as I mentioned in the last newsletter, is that if we are more conscious of the signals coming from our amygdala, we can change the way we respond to fear and adapt our behaviors to serve us better in today's world.
The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making executive center of the brain. It oversees emotional information and puts a check on the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is larger in women and matures faster in women than in men. This difference, combined with the fact that women have less testosterone and more estrogen flowing through their brains, enables women to look for solutions to conflict, even if it means they might give up more themselves to resolve the situation. For me, this helps to explain the difference I've seen in my coaching practice in the way men and women approach negotiations or handle customers. Women tend to look for ways to compromise and serve the needs of others, even at their own expense. Men tend to look for ways to come out on top, even with their own customers.
The anterior cingulate cortex, which is another part of the rational decision making center of the brain that weighs options, is also larger in women, and has been labeled as the "worrywart" center of a woman's brain. Research demonstrates that anxiety is four times more common in women than men. So while evolution prompted women to be extremely cautious and collaborative so that they could protect their young, this cautiousness in today's business world can be interpreted, particularly by men influenced by risk-taking testosterone, as not being confident enough to step-up and take risks.
The brain is divided into two hemispheres: the left hemisphere deals with language and verbal abilities as well as the ability to process information in an orderly, logical way. The right deals with visual and spatial information, as well as abstract thinking and emotional responses. The corpus callosum, which is the part of the brain that connects both hemispheres, is thicker in women enabling them to use both the right and left sides of the brain in a more connected way than men do. Women use both sides of their brains for visual and verbal processing, and use both sides to respond to emotional experiences, while men use the right side of their brain for spatial skills and the left for verbal skills. Even within the language-centered, left-hand side of the brain, there are differences between men and women's brains. Anne Moir and David Jessel, authors of Brain Sex, claim that "the difference in the layout of the average male or female brain is found to have a direct effect on the way men and women differ in their ways of thinking -- differences in brain organization in men and women will lead to differences in the efficiency with which they perform certain tasks."
The hippocampus is the center for learning, memory and emotion and is larger and more active in the female brain. It is also estrogen sensitive and is a relay station for processing memories into words. Women have 11% more neurons than men in the brain centers for language and hearing. The connections between the two sides of women's brains enable them, on average, to be better at expressing emotions and remembering details of emotional events and communicating them. They use language to talk about feelings and develop consensus more efficiently than men do. Men's brains, more specifically organized and with fewer connections, enable men, on average, to focus more intensely and not be as distracted by superfluous information. Men using only the right side of their brains are able to zone in more quickly than women on certain kinds of tasks, for example, activities requiring spatial skills. Using both sides of their brains for processing spatial information takes women longer, while men take longer to process emotional information and to use certain language skills because of the location of these functions in the male brain. Several years ago, I conducted a 360-feedback process for one of my female clients. When I interviewed her male boss, he told me one of the characteristics he most admired about my client was her ability to read the emotions of people. He often took her with him to meetings because he recognized she could read people's emotions better than he could. Afterwards, she would debrief him, helping him interpret what he might not have been able to figure out as quickly by himself.
Both men and women experience advantages and disadvantages from these brain differences. A strong belief in coaching is that the more you understand your strengths and weaknesses, the better able you will be to devise a plan to leverage those strengths and compensate for those weaknesses. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of the biological basis of who you are can help you to understand how to best use the advantages your brain provides, what to be aware of around the disadvantages, and how to make changes that will enhance your ability to succeed in your present environment. Knowledge is power and we shouldn't be afraid of understanding the biological component that contributes to making us who we are.
Chemicals that impact the structure and operation of the brain and interact with the brain to influence behavior.
Estrogen.A hormone found in much greater abundance in women than in men that enhances female brain circuits helping women master nuanced social skills of communication, observation, and intuition. Estrogen protects physical health and mental wellbeing. It moves women toward developing harmonious relationships, staying connected, and toward a preference for avoiding conflict, and increases a woman's ability to literally feel gut sensations more than men.
Oxytocin. A hormone that drives desire for connection, nurturing and bonding behavior, especially when combined with estrogen. In women, the feeling of connection reduces stress.
Progesterone.A hormone that works in conjunction with estrogen - sometimes mellowing; sometimes the opposite.
Testosterone. A fast-acting, aggressive, hormone and driver of sex. Men have 10 to 100 times more testosterone than women, enabling men to engage in interpersonal conflict and competition. The higher the level of testosterone, the more interest there is in winning the game, gaining the power, and defending the territory through strength, and the less interest there is in high quality social relationships.
Vasopressin. When combined with testosterone this hormone has a subtle aggressive impact; when combined with oxytocin it supports connection, bonding and socializing.
Cortisol.A highly sensitive hormone, made in the adrenal glands, that is activated under emotional and physical stress. Research on cortisol levels suggest that leaders with lower cortisol levels know how to relax under pressure and stay cool when facing challenges.
Dopamine. A neurochemical that stimulates pleasure circuits in the brain and provides a sense of well being.
Serotonin. A neurochemical that provides a sense of ease and calm, controls impulses and aggression. Women, in general, have about 30% more serotonin than men. Women whose ovaries make the most estrogen and progesterone are more resistant to stress because they have more serotonin. Women with less estrogen and progesterone are more sensitive to stress and have less serotonin.
Copyright © 2008 Ginny O'Brien All Rights