Humans have a 99% DNA match with are closest relatives in the animal kingdom Bonobo chimpanzees. Interestingly, men and women of the human species also have 99% DNA match. Men and women of the human species are as different from each other as Bonobo chimps to humans!
Naturally, these difference show up in how women and men differ in their cognitive functions, emotional processing, and social behavior. Neurologically and biologically men and women each have strengths and weaknesses that are unique to their gender. Denying these differences is like claiming chimps and humans are the same.
I have heard many of my clients say that they have a hard time finding female role models in leadership positions, especially in male dominated industries. They also share with me that when they do come across women in senior positions they have no desire to emulate them. Having worked in male dominated industries and attending business school where women comprised less than 20% of the student body, I understand this sentiment fully. This led to my personal exploration of leadership qualities that naturally stronger in women, which I call the Feminine Edge.
Before discussing the qualities of the Feminine Edge, I would like to guide you through a neuroscience 101 course on the difference between the female and male brain. There are various part of the female brain that are larger and more active in women.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex which is considered the "worry wort" center is larger in women. The Prefrontal Cortex that regulates the instinctual impulses is also larger in women and matures 1-2 years sooner in teen girls than boys. The Insula which is the gut feeling processor linked to our intuitive abilities is also larger in women. Similarly, the hippocampus which is the memory center of the brain that enables women to never forget details of a big fight or a tender moment is larger and more developed in women. In contrast, the Amygdala, the instinctual core of us is smaller in women. These anatomical differences in the female brain results in less impulsive behavior, the heightened intuitive abilities, and long term memory that can retain details.
Another stark difference between the female and male brain is the activation of grey matter vs. white matter. Grey matter can be compared to processing center in computer, while the white matter is the network the connects the various processing centers. Typically, the grey matter is 10 times more active in men, while the white matter is seven times more active in women. The active grey matter gives men the ability be laser focused with the task at hand while women's brain has the ability infer and make connections between different stimuli, experiences, and emotions. The more active white matter activation enable women to connect emotional stimuli to language centers which result in women's abilities to express feelings more readily then men. If you have ever raised a teenage boy, like I have, I am sure you have experienced the silent withdrawn grunt whenever asked about their feelings. The highly networked female brain enables women to shift from task to task faster and perhaps even lend to a more adaptable and flexible approach to conflict and life challenges.
Also, as the above diagram illustrates for any given stimuli there is more cross hemispheric activity in the female brain. Studies have shown that given a task the male tends to come to conclusion and act upon it faster than the female brain, while the female is slower coming to conclusions as it makes the round in the networked brain and slower to act as impulsive behavior is more regulated.
So how does this come up in the leadership qualities and the so called the Feminine Edge? The feminine brain has a natural advantage and power that is fluid, emotional, magnetic, intuitive, nurturing, interdependent, natural, and embodied. I will be exploring these qualities in more detail over the next few blog posts. In this particular post, I will discuss the fluidity and emotions.
The heightened development and activity of the white matter in the female brain gives women the natural advantage of fluidity. Fluidity is combination of flexibility and adaptability. Being able to shift gears and embrace change is furthermore the foundation of resilience. The willow tree is a good metaphor that demonstrates the power of fluidity. The willow tree is one of the most resilient and hardy trees as it is one of the few trees that is capable of bending in outrageous poses without snapping. Fluidity of the willow tree demonstrates the ability to adjust with life, rather than fighting it, and even surrendering to the process. Another powerful aspect of the willow tree is its adaptability, the willow tree’s ability to not only survive, but also thrive in some of the most challenging conditions. In this fast-paced world where change is constant, fluidity is critical attribute of leadership where women have a natural edge.
Being too emotional is often cited as a reason for why women are not fit for leadership roles. Yet emotions are the underlying power and fuel for all that we do. The true nature of emotions is that it is nothing but ENERGY IN MOTION. The below diagram is thermal image of various human emotions. The energy here expressed has heat in the body that allows for us to feel emotions. If we did not have a body to feel the shifts in energy we simply would not feel emotions.
So then how do we channel the power of our emotions? First step is to accept the emotion that we are feeling. Second is to create distance from the emotion to develop objectivity and finally fully claim ownership and mastery over the emotions. Easier said than done? I share with my client a simple exercise that allows you to feel this process first hand. If you would like to experience this exercise, you can download the recording at my www.sukisohn.com/resources