Anyone with workplace experience knows men and women process information and communicate
differently. Dealing with gender differences can prove challenging, especially for managers and leaders.
Regardless of which industry you’re in or the position you fill, male and female coworkers can
experience a shared event and come away with different emotional stories.
We seem to be hardwired this way. Now that neuroscience is becoming more sophisticated, with tools
like brain imaging, what are we learning about the gender divide?
Here are the key findings:
Picture this: Several managers exit a stressful meeting, where the discussion was lively and occasionally heated.
A female manager jokingly asks her friend if all men are missing a gene for sensitivity. A male colleague overhears her remark and doesn’t understand her reaction.
As he reaches his office, he quietly shares a comment with a buddy about female emotional reactivity
and then changes the subject to competitive bottom-line results.
Both are intelligent managers on their way up. But if you listen closely to their accounts of the meeting,
you would think they had attended separate events.
We can look to biology and the brain for explanations. In Brain Rules (Pear Press, 2008), molecular
biologist John Medina cites these gender variations:
What do these disparities mean in the workplace? How do they manifest in male/female communications?
Speech patterns among women tend to be more collaborative than those of men, and women strive to
support each other’s engagement in a conversation.
Small talk is likely to include compliments about appearance, personal aspects of their lives, their
troubles and their secrets. Such self-disclosure generates closer relationships.
By contrast, men’s small talk tends to be more competitive, with verbal sparring matches, playful insults
and putdowns. However, these are signs of solidarity. Men are communicating that they’re comfortable
enough to say things without worrying about insulting their buddies.
Men and women differ in how they manage people and give orders. Studies show women soften their
demands and statements, whereas men are more direct and unapologetic.
Women, for example, use phrases like:
Many women are culturally conditioned to encourage harmony in relationships, as evidenced by
softened demands, hedged statements and a more tentative communication style.
But tentative communication doesn’t mean a woman actually feels tentative or lacks confidence.
Similarly, more direct communication, as seen with men and some women, doesn’t mean a person is
arrogant, bossy or feels superior. These are learned communication styles.
In general, women ask more questions than men, which can create confusion.
Questioning means different things to men and women. Men usually ask questions for one reason: to
For women, asking questions serves two purposes:
As with most human behavior, there’s a biological basis for these dissimilar communication styles.
Mental health professionals have known for years about sex-based differences in psychiatric disorders.
How the brain processes stress explains some of these discrepancies. As noted earlier, the amygdale
governs many emotional responses, as well as our ability to remember them. After experiencing a
traumatic event, the female amygdala communicates with the left brain hemisphere. The opposite
occurs in men: Their amygdala communicates with the right hemisphere.
As a result, women remember the emotional details of an event, while men recall the ultimate outcome.
Furthermore, women tend to use both hemispheres when speaking and processing verbal information,
while men primarily use one.
The next time you hear men make the argument that women are more emotional, consider the
following: Women have access to more emotional data. Their brains are built that way, allowing them to
detect more emotional nuances.
But too much emotional information can interfere with rapid decision-making. Men can more quickly
pinpoint the overall situation.
Neither gender is right or wrong, nor better or worse. If we recognize the basic brain distinctions in
males and females, we can be more tolerant and forgiving of each other’s “shortcomings.”
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