It’s always hard to admit you are wrong, and I am not conceding completely just yet. However, my preconceptions about the nature of gender differences got a helluva shake-up recently when I was mingling among the participants of a seminar at the Melbourne Business School.
Cordelia Fine is the author of a riveting book called Delusions of Gender, a smart, funny and thorough read for anyone who is seriously grappling with the notion of gender equality in leadership (and elsewhere).
Fine mentioned to me that the book she wrote was not the one she set out to write. She had intended to present the evidence from neuroscience – that hot new field of studying the nervous system and the brain – about the differences between men and women.
She became increasingly astonished, and excited, to discover there was no such evidence. Despite bestselling books ranging from the recent The Female Brain by Dr Louann Brizendine to the classic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by relationship counsellor, John Gray, Fine has found that society is falling into a trap that is has fallen into many times before: widely misapplying scientific research.
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Let’s consider “Social Darwinism” as an example of such a previous blunder. This was the social attitude the idea of “survival of the fittest” should apply to entire cultures. On this reading, it was right and proper that people from “primitive cultures” – American Indians, Australian Aboriginals, the Inuit and black Africans – should die out and that it was the job of Western cultures to “smooth the pillow” on their dying days. This attitude gained wide currency after Darwin published the On the Origin of Species, a book that few people actually read.
Fine says that there is no evidence to support the idea that traits we consider are innate in women – empathy, nurture and compassion – are hard-wired. In fact, what Fine discovered was a world of science that was biased in the way it approached the subject of gender differences. When the resulting science was challenged by more independent scientific minds, its bias was clear and the conclusions fell apart.
Fine presents a fascinating finding: the way that we think and act is changed according to our perceptions of the person we are interacting with. Fine writes: “…women who thought they were about to meet a man with traditional views of women perceived themselves are more feminine than women who expected to meet a man of modern opinions.”
Somewhere along the way, I have bought into the idea that men and women are intrinsically different – it seems intuitively correct – but Fine has challenged me to rethink this .
Of course, we cannot simply overlook the powerful impact of our social environment. Dressing little boys in pink usually makes them embarrassed and giving most little girls a toy truck simply bores them.
But the knowledge that these differences are engineered rather than innate can make a difference. I remember when I read some research into the stereotypes about only children – that they are more selfish, less able to share, more self-confident and so on – that revealed these to be simply prejudices. Since my daughter is an only child, I was often tempted (and encouraged) to see her behaviour through the prism of that prejudice. Knowing it was false made it easier for me to refute others, and to look more deeply at her motivations, to both our benefits.
That is my message: yes, we may look at our behaviour through the prism of gender differences, but does it provide any deeper understanding?
If we know – if we are really and truly convinced – that our prejudices can influence the way people behave and their workplace achievements, then it is really and truly worth challenging them.