Women’s careers aren’t just in the ether, they’re on the front pages of newspapers, inside glossy magazines, on the radio, across the internet and they’re being discussed on a daily basis in governments all around the world. It’s amazing that there’s so much buzz around women and careers; people are really talking about women’s rights at work, and attitudes are changing.
Things are getting really exciting for women at work. Sure, if you look at gender-split job statistics, the situation is pretty much as depressing as it’s ever been. But – BIG BUT – the John stat doesn’t account for what’s swirling around the media, and is inside the meeting rooms and minds of career folk (women and men) across the globe. Women have been legally entitled to the same respect, pay and job titles as our male friends and peers for many years and slowly but surely the reality is catching up with the legal framework. We want equality, but we want something more than that too: we want to stay uniquely and wonderfully female. The same pay, yes, opportunities, of course, but we don’t want to have to abandon our femininity at the office revolving door. For us, gender parity does not imply gender uniformity.
While everyone deserves to be received and treated equally at work, women must do it their own way, because being a woman is part of what makes you, you. The side-by-side vision of a naked female and a naked male validates the simple fact of life: we are different versions of the same species. There’s the obvious stuff and then there are the mysterious workings inside our heads. Our brain is arguably the most important thing about us. It makes us human and is the instigator of everything that we think and do. It’s our life control centre, and science tells us that for men and women there are brain wiring variations.
In the past, we’ve been wedded to the notion that men have better connectivity within each hemisphere, whilst women have better connectivity between the hemispheres. In an everyday sense, this explained why men excelled at spatial awareness and women at social cognition and multitasking. Neuroscience is notoriously complex but the latest large-scale research shows that gender brain differences may not be as clear-cut as we were led to believe. While some recent studies suggest no significant difference in crucial parts of the brain at all, the most recent research leads to the centre of the brain – the hippocampus, the part associated with emotion and memory. This is usually larger in men than women, but, without wanting to get too technical, some women have a larger, more male-style hippocampus and some men have one that is smaller and more female in style. This suggests the idea of a continuum of femaleness to maleness for the entire brain. Scientists found that the majority of the brains studied were a mosaic of male and female structures, meaning there is no one type of male or female brain.
I like this because it validates our own stance of overlap. The most successful person in the workplace, research says, is the woman who retains her female brain but who isn’t afraid to borrow some stereotypically male traits when the opportunity requires it. Success isn’t about pitting yourself against a man, it’s about learning to be your best – it’s about finding your place on the continuum and making it rock. Interestingly, brains aren’t fixed organs, they are constantly evolving and changing as we age, depending on how we use them. Neuroplasticity, as it is called, in part explains why little girls end up studying languages and the arts and little boys get filtered into STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects that frequently lead to more lucrative careers. Repetition reinforces the networks within our brains: baby girls and baby boys might start off with exactly the same brain software, but over time, as we unwittingly encourage boys towards Lego and trucks and girls into social situations that require capable communication skills, the map of association in our childhood brains is sculpted so that the function of the hardware is constantly altered by experience. We lead our girls to dolls and our boys to the top of trees, and then we wonder why society ends up treating women and men differently.
Hormones also play a part in this lifelong divide, as does parental nurture. More interestingly, though, this has a much more subtle impact – it defines what we believe about ourselves. We self-stereotype against ourselves as women, and then we live up to these restrictions.
There is a recent study using Asian-American women that perfectly illustrates the point. The group was divided and set a maths test. Just before the test commenced, half of the group were reminded that they were Asian, invoking the stereotype of Asians having a high maths ability. This half did better in the test. However, when they were reminded of being female (which invokes the stereotype of poor maths performance), they scored lower on the test than the control group. The point is that while men do tend to outperform women in assessments of mathematic ability, for example using the test results of American SATs exams, in reality women aren’t actually worse at maths (see here), we’re just stereotyped into thinking that way.
In the workplace, this presents as women not reaching for leadership positions, or being too conservative in their entrepreneurial expectations for the simple reason that we believe that we don’t belong at the top. We aren’t all professors in waiting, but we should all be able to imagine ourselves where we really want to be at work. Not where society or our stereotyped brains expect us to land. Your career brain, the one you rely on to muster confidence, the one that assists you in awkward networking situations, pay negotiations and everything else in between, may not currently be on your side and thats in part due to stereotyping and nurture. When you know the reasoning behind where your brain is at, it allows you to make positive changes to redirect those channels – to change the hardware, so that your brain (your unconscious thinking) is aligned to your reach-for-the-stars career dreams.