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Posted 22 May 2021

The Female Brain Is Dead: Long Live The Female Brain

This week I have been thinking about cognitive dissonance and how it is affecting the world we live in right now, especially in relation to our understanding and acceptance of marginalized groups. For those that don’t know cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when faced with information that challenges or contradicts something that we believe to be true. Our discomfort leads to us then altering or twisting that information in a way that means we don’t have to change our beliefs or change our behavior.

During a recent exchange with Professor Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain, she said the following sentence to me “The female brain is dead, long live the female brain”, and I marvelled at what a perfect summary it was.

To give some context, we were laughing about our mutual dismay each time another article, training programme or speaking event pops up promoting the discredited theory of male and female brains as determiners of leadership. It speaks to the power of the cognitive dissonance that a large part of the world feels when entrenched stereotypes about sex and gender are challenged. As Rippon herself pointed out:

“You can muster all the evidence you like to illustrate that a particular belief about sex differences in the brain is just a myth, that new research has shown that old certainties need to be swept away, that so much of what has been taken as a given about ‘female brains’ and ‘male brains’ is misleading or just downright wrong, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will pop up again in some explanation of a gender gap or a particular educational policy”.

News flash! Men can be empathetic too! Women can be ambitious risk takers! Non-binary leaders may or may not be predominantly characterised by either of these traits! Gender is the wrong question to ask when it comes to leadership. Instead we need to focus on competence, context and ethics.

Why is it that some theories just will not die? And what harm are they really causing? When it comes to having to rethink our world view or aspects of life that we have based our sense of self around it is not easy to have an open mind, so let’s talk about cognitive dissonance and why we must keep constantly challenging ourselves.

Examining The Grey

Following on from the theme in my article about Elon Musk last week, once again we see that many people simply prefer a world where things can be easily categorized and choose not to look too hard at the things that don’t fit. We are seeking a black and white world and thus prefer not to have to examine the grey. The problem here being that the grey exists whether we like it or not, and refusing to adjust our thinking leaves people excluded and prevents us from gaining knowledge. We cannot prioritize our own comfort above learning, especially when the new information we receive has the potential to increase the acceptance and well-being of marginalized people.

It is easier to see why we must challenge our own rigid thinking when we realize the wrong paths that it can send us down. To return to the female brain example, Rippon had something to say on this subject too. She pointed out how the narratives surrounding male and female leadership lead us to focus in on the wrong pieces of information. She said:

“On the one hand, you might say I should keep quiet about the ‘no such thing as a female brain’ qualms, as current reference to female leadership in the context of Covid- 19 “successes” is positive. Jacinda Ardern certainly seems to be the poster-girl for the empathic style of leadership and if the take-home message is that female equals empathy and empathy is a good thing, perhaps we shouldn’t rock the boat. You can’t spend decades complaining about the lack of women in leadership positions and then sabotage a breakthrough which identifies women as good leaders. But perhaps we’ve misidentified the real message – that empathy is a very effective leadership skill – and are in danger of automatically attributing it as an invariable characteristic of females.”

I love this point because she admits how much easier it would be sometimes to accept the mainstream narrative even when you know it is incorrect. But in doing so we miss out on a greater piece of learning. By focusing in on the quality or trait that is proving to be successful rather than the gender we attribute it to, we make it something that everyone can achieve. Not only does it allow for men to consider that empathy is a quality available to them but it includes non-binary people in the narrative. By making empathy biologically female we are belittling men and excluding anyone who sits outside of the gender binary from seeing themselves as included in the conversation about different leadership styles. We’re also setting women up to only take the jobs that require empathy, as opposed to those which require ambition and risk taking.

Leadership is competence, communication, context. It is not biologically determined.

The Pragmatic Approach

So how do we tackle this problem? Are we destined to keep repeating these same conversations about female brains? How do we unstick ourselves and move forward?

Talking about the female leadership narrative Rippon says:

“We really need to get away from labelling things as female or male. These terms now carry too much baggage of inaccurate expectations and assumptions. We need to identify what process works, be it building an autonomous and self-confident team, or encouraging innovation and independence or developing an inclusive group identity, to recognise what skills support that process and who has them [or has the potential to develop them] and train our leaders accordingly. In what might seem counter to diversity initiatives, gender should be irrelevant or certainly not part of the ‘essentials’ list in the job description”.

A focus on what actually works and a pragmatic mindset can help us to move past our own embedded biases and assumptions that a persons biology is the reason for their success or failing.

Read more of Nancy’s Forbes blogs here.