Since first published in 1992, the pop-psychology book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus has sold over 15 million copies and has helped popularise a stereotype which had been around long before the author wrote his book: that men and women are distinguished not only by their genitals and sexual characteristics, but also by their brains. Where did this binary perspective come from?
This is how the stereotype goes: “the hardwired differences in the brains of women and men underpins differences in behaviour, ability, temperament and lifestyle choices”. After all, women’s brains are slightly smaller than men’s, as measured by phrenologists in the 19th Century, mapping the skull as indicative of mental faculties and character, right? The stereotype is born.
In addition, the corpus callosum – the bridge nerve fibres connecting the two halves of the brain – was found to be bigger in women back in the 1980s. This fitted the comfortable, binary, pre-existing concept of right and left brains: that the left half of the human brain is responsible for language and analytical/logical types of thinking, whereas the right half handles emotional and creative processes.
Women suddenly developed a reputation as excellent multitaskers with greater emotional awareness because of the supposedly simultaneous access to both sides of the brain, thanks to the larger corpus callosum. Everyone was convinced that women were indeed from Venus, and men from Mars (interestingly, Venus is the Roman mythology goddess of love and sex).
Not surprisingly, this stereotype fuelled already existing biases about the parts women ought to play in society. If you grow up reading in magazines and books, watching media shows, advisements and movies, and constantly hearing from your environment that women are more suited to certain tasks (and careers) than men, these become the messages your brain will use to develop your worldview, your mental programming. When not openly addressed, they become implicit biases, and as we’ve seen to date with gender inequality, the consequences are rather difficult to reverse.
Psychologists, diversity researchers/activists and organisational coaches understand that hearing about the overwhelming amount of evidence supporting gender equality as being beneficial for business (not to mention it is a human right) is just the first step. Changing behaviours, systems and processes preventing women from becoming true equals is “a long game”. How long depends (and continues to depend) on several factors including culture, socioeconomic factors, education, laws/regulations, etc. One thing seems certain, a catalyst is needed to speed things us.
As A/Prof. Anthony Grant - Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney – talked about, in one of the most enjoyable lectures I ever attended, the advent of brain imaging technology in the 20th Century resulted in the genesis of ground-breaking neuroscience research, as well as unleashing a tidal wave of neuro-nonsense. It seems that everywhere we turned we’d find a new self-help or management book claiming to have the key to effective leadership, happiness and even marriage, according to neuroscience.
The colour-coded brain maps we’ve all come to love in social media blogs and articles are a misrepresentation of real-time brain activity and sadly, both researchers and the media played a big part in perpetuating the myth that women are indeed from Venus and men from Mars. That is, those pesky implicit biases mentioned previously helped push the agenda in brain research (and still is) to hunt for differences between men and women. Until recently.
The 21st Century has brought tremendous advances in brain imaging technology and computational power and with them, the ability for neuroscientists to interpret the data more accurately and to re-think causality links leading to incorrect interpretations. For detailed discussions on studies debunking the “hardwired differences between male and female brains that explain why men are better at map reading” myth, refer to the 2 March 2019 article in New Scientist by cognitive neuroscientist Prof Gina Rippon.
Basically, the evidence suggests that women and men are more similar than different. For sure, biological sex must be considered as one of the variables when studying brains however, there is much more to it: genes, hormones and the environment (ie, how life experiences shapes brain development, explained below). Neuroscience alone does not inform our behaviours, it’s a multidisciplinary effort spear-headed by science.
Several articles were recently published and summarised in one of our newsletters on the last Harvard Medical School conference on Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare held in October 2018, which had neuroscience as a central theme. Three takeaway messages from the conference are relevant to the discussion about male and female brains:
Our brains change throughout our lives and can be altered or adapted. Both our genetics and our environment (i.e. our experiences, relationships, work, culture, etc) shape our brains and influence behaviour. This adaptability is known as neuroplasticity – that is, the ability of the brain to grow, regrow and reform its connections and functions. Through the neuroplasticity lens, we may be able to better explain similarities and differences and find adaptive approaches to influence behavioural change that does depend on gender only.
Emotions play a crucial role in memory formation and neurological change processes. Activating the reward centre in the brain stimulates processes that contribute to enhanced learning, habit formation and positive emotions. Evidence-based leadership coaching is about purposefully moving forward, tapping into clients’ unique strengths and values and helping them through constructive development and a transformational journey of growth. Whilst the coaching journey is an individual thing, these underpinning concepts apply to both men and women.
New developments in neuroscience, as well as biometrics, genomics, metabolomics, and the human microbiome offer the opportunity for improved business outcomes, the enhancement of performance and human potential advancement. Science will continue to change coaching theory and practice over the next few years, making our mission at ProVeritas Group even more compelling.
To quote Prof. Gina Rippon’s words: “The concept of female brain or male brain is outdated and inaccurate. Every person’s brain is unique. The value comes from knowing where these individual differences come from and what they might mean for the brain’s owner”.
I would say, let’s forget about Venus and Mars and work together, as equals, here in our home, planet Earth.