Sunday, 31 August 2014

LEAN IN for women – Neurological studies comparing gender brain differences

YES Ladies …  we are different! 

Female and male thinking and responses naturally differ; … we are actually structured differently in the brain; … AND as our hormones change, so does our brain functionality. Fascinating stuff!

Now,  we know that women are generally good at avoiding conflict and reading body language and emotional cues.

Apparently, we honed these skills way back in prehistoric times when we were more vulnerable, with a smaller stature and a greater need to protect ourselves and our infants.  In contemporary primate studies, females with stronger social connections have a higher survival rate … and for males, survival depends on physical aggression and competition with other males [you know, the usual 'mine's bigger than yours' posturing].  According to neurological studies, these methods of survival shaped the female brain and its response to stress.

Here’s the thing: … Structurally, the female brain has three areas that are larger than the male brain:
  1. The pre-frontal cortex [the control centre for emotions];
  2. The insular [the intuition centre];  and
  3. The hippocampus [which stores memories with strong emotion such as arguments and romantic encounters]
The amygdala, which is responsible for physical aggression, is smaller in females.

These differences start to develop just after conception. The male foetal brain encourages growth in the sexual and aggression centres and reduces nerve fibres in the communication, emotion and observation centres.   Whereas, in females, oestrogen stimulates nerve fibre growth in communication, emotion and observation centres, including areas responsible for intuition, caring and empathy. This causes several structural brain differences that persist through life.

So there it is!  … Women have 11 per cent more neurons for language and hearing than men, and girls speak up to 3 times more words per day than boys … and speak more rapidly.  
Ahhh … so girls … you can tell him it’s normal!

From birth, girls show more interest in the emotional expressions of those around them and are better at reading faces and picking up on human vocal tones. As puberty develops, hormones hijack the brain … and young adult women are twice as likely to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression.  

Recent functional brain imaging studies in adolescent girls experiencing adverse emotional symptoms, showed structural changes in the brain between the frontal lobe and other areas including the amygdala and hippocampus. Interesting … so when others say ‘its all in her head’ … it is!  It’s a physical; … structural brain change that impacts on her natural responses.

There is a whole lot of other stuff written about menstrual cycle peaks, which impacts on our varying levels of desire for socialisation, sharpness of brain and performance ability … suffice to say that for some women, the rapid change in brain functioning linked to hormone fluctuations can be extremely emotionally disruptive.

Now here’s where I got my biggest ‘Ahhaaa’ moment … for those of us going through menopause or post menopause … listen up.   As the oestrogen depletes, there is LESS drive to avoid conflict, to tolerate or maintain [unhealthy] relationships at all costs, and/or to care entirely for the needs of others … you know, it’s time to stop putting others first … it’s now YOUR time!  Your amygdala is heightened!  Interestingly, women are much more likely to initiate a divorce after 50 years of age [or post menopause] than a male.

Studies also show that women’s brains have a heightened response in their amygdala when anticipating pain, fear or threat; … their brains appearing to be more sensitive to perceived threats. 

Generally women are more wired for reducing conflict, fostering strong social relationships and caring for others, BUT if their relationships at work are under threat, if conflict is persistent, or if they feel ostracised … they may show more aggression, though often verbally, subtle and relationship based. Whereas, men biologically lack the sophistication of verbal fluency, and the ability to read subtle emotional clues, and simply don’t have the capacity for the emotional memory that women have; … they thrive on competition and are more likely to respond with aggression.

So lets look more closely at workplace roles: … Due to their biological makeup, women in general thrive in workplace positions and projects that fuel their ability to socialise, connect and form purposeful relationships. Men however, are more likely to succeed in individual projects or in a competitive environment, which activates their aggression, motiving their innate drive to succeed.

Now if we put this into practical context: … The LEAN IN global movement is focused on encouraging more women to lean in to the decision making tables … to bring about more equal opportunity in the workplace … to value the skills and abilities women can bring to leadership positions. I agree with Sheryl SandbergChief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the book LEAN IN, in that I too have been questioning for many years why, despite the progress women have made, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government, industry and the big end of town. Even worse than that, the percentages of women in the top jobs has not increased in the past decade.  In fact, if you look at the current Federal and State government roles in Australia, women’s representation has considerably decreased.

Yes sure … men are more competitive and may more aggressively push their way to get to the corner office … BUT, once there … are they a boss who struts around posturing positional power? …  are they aggressive and competitively focused on winning at any cost …  or are they a real leader?

You see, from many years of leadership observation and studies,  I know that great leaders are those who build great relationships … have genuine empathy for others … value purposeful connections and develop supportive teams. Great leaders have high levels of Emotional Intelligence [EQ], which starts with being self-aware of their own emotions and intuitively knowing the impact their behaviours have on others.   They can read the room, pick up on the subtle undercurrents, and mindfully focus on what matters to others.   Great leaders are driven to inspire and lead others … not motivated by self importance.  Just quietly, in my Leadership Coaching practice, I also know how hard it is for men to drop their ego and learn how to do this stuff.

Think about it … given the structure of the female brain and how we are naturally wired for genuine, engaging leadership roles;  … then lets get serious about having real gender equality at leadership levels … lets acknowledge we feel threatened and annoyed at having to sit on the sidelines for way too long … and lets heighten our aggression levels … bring our amygdala to the fore.   We should never feel like we ‘don’t have what it takes’ or ‘not good enough’.

Surely it’s not just middle-age women like me who have been frustrated by this all our working lives,  and have lost any tolerance for the status quo ... who are willing to take a stand on this.
Show your support  … Join a LEAN IN circle … contact me if you would like to know more about joining a LEAN IN circle or creating one in your community. 

Written by Jilinda Lee  … including research by Dr John Cummins - published in HR Monthly - April 2014.

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