There is a physiological difference in the brain that affects how we focus, solve problems, and even how we worry. The corpus callosum is a structure of the brain that connects and facilitates communication between the two hemispheres. Many studies claim that women have a larger corpus callosum than men. Let me describe two ways this difference shows up in the workplace. You can then decide if the studies can be substantiated by our behavior.*
1. Women multitask better than men. Men focus better than women. This affects how we process and communicate our ideas and plans.
In my last job I was responsible for changing the culture of a corporation. When presenting to an all-male leadership team, if I lost my focus to my passion, their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads. I knew I was connecting the past, present and future behavior with the effect on each of the departments before getting to the bottom line. They wanted a linear outline with a clear result and budget. I needed to tone it down and lay out my ideas concisely and clearly in order to be heard.
However, there were a few leaders who acknowledged my ability to see how a corporate action would affect all the people now and in the future. They acknowledged that their tendencies to focus on detail and fiscal results led to disconnection to other parts in the system. Although we had many frustrating debates in the process, the programs I developed with these men led the company going from bankruptcy to the top IPO in 1993 in a span of three years.
As companies finally open the doors to higher-ranking positions for women (through quotas or just good sense), we should honor our brain differences and strengths. And because we now know that the brain has plasticity, meaning it can change and grow, we should look to adapt when we can.
• Women, there are times when giving 100 percent to the task at hand is better than doing or thinking about ten things at once. Sometimes your brain resembles an iPod set to shuffle. You can focus on one album at a time with practice.
• Men, let go of the need to know based on a locked-in point of view. Be more curious about how fragments interconnect and how people are affected by your actions. If you do, you will get even better returns on your investments.
2. Men and women worry differently.
"You worry too much" is a phrase women often hear from men. Yet recent studies using new imaging techniques indicate that women DO NOT worry more than men. They just worry differently.
When women worry, they tend to use both the right and left side of their brains. Again, this may be due to the increase in size of the corpus callosum. Men tend to stay within the left hemisphere, the analytical side of the brain.
Dr. Vesna Pirec, a psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago says, "With both hemispheres activated in women, there are many more types of emotional reactions. And women, in times of stress, also tend to remember many more details than men would." Men, have you ever tried to argue with a woman over "what really happened" about a past event? If the event involved what people did or said, it's likely the woman's recollections are more correct.
Women also express their worries differently. They have a greater tendency to brood about the present effects of the problem on everyone involved and on how the problem will affect their security and relationships in the future. Since they tend to verbally process what they think about more than men (meaning they talk things through instead of working things through in their minds), they talk more about their worries than men. Men may also tend to keep quiet about their concerns for fear of appearing weak.
Regardless of our differences, listening to how we worry can be beneficial.
• Women should write their worries on paper then ask themselves some substantial questions: What is the worst that could happen? How likely is the worst to happen, really? What do you know to be true right now? What actions are possible based on what you know to be true? What is in your control to change? Can you focus on what is in your control instead of what is not or what has yet to happen?
By talking with your brain, you can assess the true level of risk and make better choices for yourself. With awareness, you can distinguish what is a real threat from when your brain is being overprotective.
• Men, before you jump in to solve a problem, ask a woman who has had experience with similar issues what to consider, and then patiently listen to all the angles she presents. You can also ask a man. The more perspective you have, the better your solutions.
Let's celebrate our differences; we need to count on each others' strengths for success.
PS You may argue that this difference is a part of upbringing and not biology. Whatever the source, we can still value our differences and appreciate that we don't all think alike.
* Yes, this post presents a stereotypical perspective and could be defined as labeling. Yes, male "creatives" tend to be right-brain thinkers. And yes, there are studies that dispute the ones I use. But if you focus on the discrepancies, aren't you missing a great opportunity to improve your relationships and problem-solving capabilities? As I tell all of my students, "Take what is useful and move on."
Marcia Reynolds, PsyD is an organizational psychologist with a research emphasis neuropsychology. Read more at www.outsmartyourbrain.com and contact her directly for a list of research sources.