Men and women’s brains are wired differently…Really?


Looking at the website of Women in the City, an organisation that promotes women in financial professions, I was surprised to read about their latest venture, Project Diamond. In their own words, Project Diamond, launched in Google’s offices, is designed to explain the differences between male and female approaches to business. The handbook which they launched for the occasion explains “the science behind the theory of why the way male and female brains are wired makes for differences in behaviours (we’re just different)” (quote taken from the Women in the City website; emphasis added).

Whilst I can understand that it suits Women in the City to perpetuate the myth that men and women are wired differently, I am amazed that an organisation like Google supports this philosophy!

So I thought it would be useful to outline our philosophy and approach to women in the workplace and women in technical professions:

  • We do not believe that women and men are fundamentally different in their brain. They are not “wired differently”, women are not by definition left-brain oriented, nor or men automatically right-brain oriented. We feel that such stereotypical thinking is not helpful, and damages women’s opportunities.
  • We do however firmly believe that through generations of cultural stereotyping, both men and women tend to have an unconscious bias against women’s ability for STEM subjects, and against women in senior positions in the workplace. People can “suffer” from unconscious bias in various degrees, and in some cases not at all. Women themselves can make choices and judgements based on their own unconscious bias, which can lead to a lack of confidence in one’s own ability, a preference to leave the workplace and conform to the stereotypical role model, or in some cases even bullying against other women.
  • We do believe that women can overcome their bias and become more confident in their own ability through coaching, mentoring and training. We also believe that women’s networks can lead to increased performance.
  • Yet we don’t believe in segregation. We don’t believe that mentoring for women by women, conferences for women by women and the like are the solution to greater gender equality. We need to get the balance right between supporting women and educating men. The debate needs to be open to both genders.
  • We do believe in choice. Not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder; some men and women will genuinely prefer to work part time, not at all, or in roles below their ability. We do believe though that if given real choice, more women would take the chance to develop fulfilling careers.
  • We do not like linking the debate about women in the workplace to flexible work, life/work balance etc. We believe that the debate around a more flexible approach to working hours is for everyone, men and women alike. When we live in a truly equal society every household should be able to make their own individual choices about career, working hours and balance. In some instances men will work flexible hours, sometimes women, often both. We need to promote a culture which supports choice regardless of gender, or we will continue to be stereotyped.

 I don’t expect everyone to agree with our approach to gender equality. We challenge our own thinking constantly and would love you do to the same!


Because you’re worth it…

Because you're worth it
I recently ran a peer coaching session with a number of female engineers about difficult conversations. The purpose of the session was to share ideas on how to tackle these conversations. We started talking about salary negotiations, which according to many of the women present, is one of the most difficult conversations to have.
Most of the women in the session hadn’t had a salary conversation in many years, mainly because remuneration no longer forms part of the annual appraisal in many organisations. Why is it so difficult to ask for a salary increase? A conversation about this can be difficult because it touches our identity as a competent person. At work, most of us like to believe we are competent. A conversation about your salary is ultimately a conversation about your professional worth. Your manager could decline, which could mean that you are not competent enough to deserve a pay increase.

It could help to consider yourself a business. You are an enterprise, negotiating the value of a project with another company. By rationalising the situation, you can remove the emotions, including your sense of competency, from the conversation.

Remember too, not asking means not getting. Rarely will employers spontaneously offer a salary increase these days. I wonder if some of the gender pay gap is due to women not asking quite as often as men. You owe it to yourself to regularly assess your market value. If you are not certain whether you deserve a pay increase, speak to people outside your company and compare the market. A recruiter or headhunter can help. They usually have a very good idea of your market value.

When asking for a pay increase, come prepared. List your achievements over the last period, and explain why that deserves a higher salary. This is not bragging, as one of the women in the session pointed out. Especially in large organisations, you have to be your own sponsor. If you don’t publicise your own achievements, they might get lost. Don’t threaten that you will leave if you don’t receive the pay increase. No one likes to be blackmailed. Emphasize the positive aspects of your company instead. Highlight that you really love your work and the organisation, and that you can continue to add value. The message will be just as clear.

I encourage all women engineers to discuss their salary annually. That doesn’t mean you’ll get an increase every year, but at least you will be much closer to your real market value. Because you are worth it…

It’s Wimbledon: Strawberries & Cream & Equality for Women Players

Strawberries & Cream
Six years ago, Wimbledon, as the last of the Grand Slam tournaments, granted equal pay to women players. A little late, perhaps, but with that decision Wimbledon finally entered the 21st Century where men and women are equal.

And yet, there are still some commentators who question the rightness of that decision. They ignore the fact that prize money covers a player’s expenses. Women pay the same for their coaches and support network, they train just as hard and the materials are just as expensive, hotels are not cheaper for the female sex…

Instead, they highlight the fact that women only play the best of three sets, versus five sets for the men. Women work less hard for the money, and should therefore earn less. Women players do not choose to play fewer sets. A lot of players have publicly spoken out that they are ready to play five sets. I am not an expert on women’s physiology, but I doubt that women would fatally injure themselves or jeopardise their health if they were to play five sets. It has been done before, and they all survived!

The implication however is clear: women are frail, weaker, physically not the equal of men, not as impressive as athletes and should be protected. A very Victorian concept, yet one that stubbornly survives in society. How often do we question the fact that women have access to fewer physical opportunities than men? As an example, Jessica Ennis had to compete in the heptathlon during the Olympics, with men competing in the decathlon.

These imposed sporting limitations affect our perception of women in society. Yes, we are equal in principle, sure, but women should not be doing heavy physical work. They probably should not be working on a construction site with a hard hat and boots, or be employed on a rig, on a submarine… We are not strong enough, we need protection, we are frail, and besides, dare we mention it, hard physical work is not very feminine.

Wimbledon remains committed to its Victorian ideals by repeatedly speaking out against “grunting” in women’s tennis. There has even been talk of forbidding it altogether by using “gruntometers” to measure women players’ noise levels. The official line is that it distracts the opponent. In an article in the Telegraph a few days ago, Pippa Middleton, that symbol of women’s equality, said that she prefers men’s tennis at Wimbledon because she finds the grunting too distracting and annoying. Shockingly, men grunt too. Jimmy Connors was the first player to grunt, and has been credited with inventing it. Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and others are all noisy players. But we never complain about them. Instead, we focus on women’s grunting. Do we find it distracting because it is not ladylike, not feminine?

Maybe mixed doubles could be the green shoot of equality at Wimbledon. Move the mixed doubles to Centre court, let each play to her or his strengths, complementing a teammate’s abilities. Not a bad model for the workplace, either, come to think of it.