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

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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!

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10 thoughts on “Men and women’s brains are wired differently…Really?

  1. Hi Greet–I think you’ve expressed this very well, and for the most part I agree. One thing I personally add is that due to socialisation that starts VERY early (before a child is even born!), not because of any innate or ‘wiring’ differences, women and men in our culture do tend to develop and exhibit different traits and abilities that conform with the standard stereotypes, and workplaces would be wise to appreciate and exploit this diversity. We need to acknowledge rather than ignore the power of this kind of socialisation (e.g. ‘assertive’ women don’t elicit the same response as the exact same ‘assertiveness’ in men) while not making people of one gender who exhibit some traits socially considered characteristic of the other into freaks, outliers or role models.

    • Hi Carolyn, that is a very good point, and has given me a real aha moment. I guess due to socialisation women do exhibit different traits, and it would be good if we can embrace these differences. As long as we don’t assume innate differences, and understand that we shouldn’t generalise too much. Ultimately, people are all different and should be treated as individuals!

      I get confronted with early socialisation daily, when it comes to how I raise my son. He is three years old and still free of stereotypical influence, mostly. He has a doll house and a toy kitchen, as well as cars. He plays with all toys equally happily. He also has a pink toy watch which he chose himself in the shop. I do my best to be as neutral as possible, but other people constantly question these choices, and I get a lot of comments about the pink watch and the dollhouse, and usually it is mums of little girls who disapprove!

      • I have a lot of admiration for parents who make space for their children’s self-expression regardless of gender association, because it does seem as if everyone else in your child’s world will be pushing him or her (but it seems particularly him) toward gender conformity. And particularly in the case of boys this pushing can be physically violent; did you see this story?

        http://www.buzzfeed.com/lilyhiottmillis/a-two-year-old-boy-got-assaulted-at-wal-mart-for-wearing-a-p

      • Carolyn, you are frightening me now! I haven’t had any negative experiences and certainly don’t expect any. Reading the story, I do recognise some things. Children like to mimick their carer, sometimes that is me, sometimes my husband. When it is me, he does ask to wear my necklace, or pretends to put make up on. We have been out wearing the necklace, never been a problem. When he is with my husband, he often wants to wear an Arsenal hat, which again is fine. Children don’t have a preference either way, they like what their parents like, and want to be like them. I do think it helps living in North London, where there is such a variety of people that everyone is more tolerant (I hope). I am also originally from Belgium and this whole gender stereotyping business is just not big over there. It was my mum who bought my son the pink watch in the first place!

      • Florida is a pretty frightening place! I’m sure you don’t have to worry about anything as drastic as that…but it does seem that boys in particular are sometimes bullied and mocked for choosing ‘girl’ things–which is why it’s wonderful and admirable that you and your husband are strong and secure enough to let your son do and wear whatever gives him enjoyment.

      • Carolyn, I read something interesting recently, which reminded me of our conversation. Why do people find it more frightening and scary if boys don’t conform to stereotype, versus girls. In other words, a girl playing with “boy toys” is a novelty or interesting, a boy playing with “girl toys” is a freak. Well what I read is that for girls to behave like boys is considered a promotion, for boys to behave like girls is considered a demotion. I am afraid there is some truth in this! Not in the superiority of boys over girls obviously, but in the way people think!

  2. That’s true—though I think there’s even more to it than that. It is part of the evidence of a very deep meme, ‘men are people and women are women’, which is astonishingly pervasive; once become aware of it you see it everywhere. If this statement doesn’t make immediate intuitive sense to you, and you’re interested in understanding it better, email me and I’ll write more about it and point you in the direction of others who’ve helped to explain it.

    Using this meme, a girl who adopts ‘masculine’ behaviours is a nonperson attempting to become a person—cute and charming, though obviously necessarily futile and completely nonthreatening. A boy adopting ‘feminine’ behaviours, though, is attempting to deny his own individual personhood, a serious existential threat that generates powerful emotions in people who accept this meme without realising that they do.

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