07/30/2012 08:51 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

Are Today's Young Women Afraid To Lead? Part 2

I recently posted a blog about the fear of leadership among women of the millennial generation. It received numerous comments, several from people who voiced the opinion that men are natural-born leaders, whereas women are not. (See slideshow below.) Thus, the topic of discussion became not women's fear of leadership, but women's inability to lead.

In the early 1990s, feminist Felice Schwartz argued in the Harvard Business Review that businesses should not only make hiring more women a goal, but make helping them advance an imperative. Sixteen years later, women are still voicing the same opinion. But leadership expert Sally Helgesen believes that that is not a wise move. While Helgesen's arguments are based on women's evolving roles in the dynamic nature of today's work environment, others have argued that women's brains may not be wired to lead in the same ways that men's brains are.

By now you're probably thinking, Women aren't leaders because their brains aren't programmed to lead? What kind of sexist excuse is that?! Hear me out -- or hear out the researchers, anyway.

The basic arguments for biological sex differences in leadership ability go like this: From birth, baby girls are more focused on other people's faces, and in particular seek signs of approval. This innate gender difference increases as girls hit puberty and the hormones estrogen and oxytocin flood their systems. Teenage girls are more concerned with relationships than are teenage boys, and tend to seek out others in times of stress as a way to decrease fear. As a result, girls are biologically motivated to avoid conflict at all costs.

Men, on the other hand -- thanks to the hormones testosterone and vasopressin and their growing amygdalas -- show a decrease in socialization and increase in aggression once they hit puberty. Teenage boys become increasingly concerned about challenges to their authority. They strive to increase their place in the family and school hierarchies through competition and conflict.

Fast-forward to the boardroom, where you have a mix of men and women. A likely scenario goes like this: A woman is making a presentation about a possible way to build up clientele in these tough economic times. She looks at the faces of her colleagues for approval. The men in the room see her doing this and view it as a sign of weakness and insecurity. To further exacerbate the problem, men tend to listen with their bodies turned slightly away from the speaker (they can actually hear better that way), whereas women like to speak face-to-face to indicate attentiveness.

So now you have a woman who thinks the men in the room don't approve of her idea, which makes her insecure. Of course, she's not going to say anything about it because she wants to avoid conflict at all costs, thanks to all that oxytocin and her larger prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in decision-making and compromise). Add to that the fact that women are more likely to weigh all the options when making a decision due to their larger anterior cingulate cortex, whereas men just want to decide and move on (indecisiveness is again a sign of weakness, and more testosterone means more impulsive and potentially risky decisions), and you've got a storm brewing. The likely outcome? The woman's idea gets pushed aside and a man takes over as leader and makes a decision.

So, are men born leaders? Maybe. It depends on how you define leadership and what qualities you look for in an effective leader. If you want a quick decision, take a man to your next meeting. If you want someone who can read the competitors like a book and figure out what they're up to, take a woman.

The interesting paradox is that in today's society, both men and women are more likely to rate women as possessing more of the qualities that they value in a leader, such as honesty, intelligence, and creativity. At the same time, men and women also say that America isn't ready to have a woman president and that women are discriminated against and held back by men in key arenas like politics. Yet when asked to rate equally qualified candidates for a Congressional position, male and female candidates got equal votes.

To sum up: Are women afraid to lead? If you look at their hormones, potentially. But if you look at the qualities the public says they want in a leader, then no. Are men better leaders? If you want a competitive, decisive leader, then maybe. If you want someone skilled in compromise and negotiation, then no.

The bottom line is that men and women both bring advantages and disadvantages to the table. Regardless, no one should let themselves be held back by fear. As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." No doubt that small group is going to be composed of both men and women. Lead on!

Men, Women And Leadership

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.