What Influences Gender Balance in Business and Beyond
In a special interview for Sapiens, Anton Lukashevich, a neurologist and member of the cognitive research laboratory of the Higher School of Economics and the Department of Normal Physiology at Sechenov University, whose area of expertise is studying gender characteristics of human reactions, speaks about the differences between the male and female brain, how gender affects career choices and the desire for leadership, and about what gender is a better leader, .
- Anton, what do you think are the main differences between the male and female brains?
- Let's look at this question first in terms of anatomy. If we look at the brains of a man and a woman of about the same height and weight, we will not see any difference. However, if we start to measure them, examine them using, for example, magnetic resonance imaging, structural analysis, or simply anthropometrically, we will notice small differences. We know for a fact that a man's brain is slightly larger than a woman's in volume and mass. But in the same way, for example, a child's brain is smaller in mass and volume than an adult's brain.
- So, to put it simply, there are morphological differences, but it doesn't affect anything?
- For a long time it was thought that it did, and they even built theories on it. But that's not how science works. It is impossible to draw conclusions about functional differences between male and female brains based only on differences in their anatomical structure.
- And if we talk about who becomes a leader more often - men or women? There is a theory that the physiological foundations of leadership include height, weight, physique, and health. Is there any correlation between having these qualities and being a leader?
- This is a rather "volatile" theory, which largely depends not on the specific person and their biological and chemical structure.
Physiology today cannot answer the question whether a person will be a leader. It is incorrect to directly link physiology to manifestations of leadership. Moreover, it has been proved that there is no leadership gene.
In the past, for example, it was customary to correlate testosterone levels with the level of aggression.
People with high testosterone levels were viewed as potential criminals. But this is wrong: every criminal has high testosterone levels, but not everyone with a high testosterone level is a criminal. Research on leadership began about 40 years ago. That's quite a short time for science, but it is already clear that there are no significant differences between female and male leadership styles. There are details that are statistically significant. But in a global sense, for the person who chooses this leader and follows him, there is not much difference. It turns out that the development of leader qualities does not depend on gender, but on a combination of external and internal factors: the conditions in which a person lives; the place where they grew up; the family in which they were raised.
- Who do you think has the best chance of becoming a leader?
- Everyone starts with equal chances. The question is how the society in which the future leader begins his or her journey perceives this or that model of leadership.
Now we have come to the point where people are equally willing to accept both male and female leaders. The main thing is that the person should show high professional skills and fully meet the requirements of the position he or she is in.
- What about female and male models of leadership? Are there psycho-physiological differences between them?
- I'm afraid that we can't bring psychophysiology to bear on this. The first thing that comes to mind is hormonal levels. However, there are scientific works suggesting that differences in behavior are not due to differences in hormone levels, especially when they are normal. It is clear that high doses of hormones will lead to psychological or mental changes. Normally, however, these fluctuations do not affect anything. There have been attempts to argue that oxytocin levels have an effect on human behavior.
Yes, it is indeed related to certain behaviors, especially positive ones. Close attachment, positive emotions from joint activities, and the maternal instinct are formed and maintained with appropriate levels of oxytocin. But we cannot say that behavior is directly dependent on it. Even if you read review articles on leadership - male and female - there will be opinions that a female leader is more empathic and a male one is more directive, but it hardly depends on the activity of any nerve center. The mental and the social in human beings are connected, but this connection is not one-sided at all. There is a well-known paper that attempts to explain aggressiveness of men and women by the difference in the size of the amygdala. There is a nerve center in the brain that is responsible for the development of emotions and is activated during aggressive behavior. Stimulation of the amygdala in laboratory animals results in the increase of aggression. That is, if you implant an electrode there and press a button, the bull would become enraged.
We all know that women differ from men in their level of aggression, but even that is not entirely true. Some studies show that men have a larger amygdala, while others find that the size of the amygdala is the same in the different sexes. Every attempt to find a morphological or physiological mechanism to explain this difference ends up with nothing. In this question we have to pay attention to the psychosocial sphere. Does this mean that there is some mechanism that is responsible for this or that leadership model? No. If we take a man who has "female" leadership qualities and examine his brain, it turns out that the probability of finding "female" traits there tends to zero. That is, there is no causal relationship to be traced.
- What gender stereotypes about the differences between male and female brains have been debunked to date?
- You have to go into a lot of detail here. If we talk about studying amygdala sizes, some researchers find differences, some don't. It's the same with the size of the hippocampus, which, among other things, is responsible for long-term memory and the processes associated with it. It was once said that men and women had it in different sizes. Today it has been proven that these differences are insignificant.
It turns out that there is no great anatomical and physiological difference in the structure of the male and female brain. There are individual differences. Each person, regardless of sex, has behavioral peculiarities.
We find people with similar behavioral patterns, like gamblers, and begin to study their brains. These groups include both women and men. As a result we conclude that there is a difference between healthy people and those suffering from gambling addiction, but there are no differences between men and women within each group.
Obviously, the physiology of the male and female bodies differs in at least some aspects. However, the basic mechanisms that make neurons fire and do something work the same way in both sexes. The enzyme systems that make neurons work are exactly the same. Scientists have never found any difference in the effect of hormone levels on women and men.
It is true that there are diseases, such as autoimmune diseases, to which women are more susceptible. But this is more a question of immunology than physiology.
There is a myth that women have a better perception of colors and are better at discerning shades of color. However, studies have shown that both sexes have a completely identical structure of the retina and visual cortex. And the stereotype is most likely related to verbal fluency - the ability to speak a certain number of words in a limited amount of time, which is a little bit higher in women. It turns out that the fair sex is just better at describing colors, while men don't bother learning new shades. There are basic shades - dark and light - and that's enough for them. It's a psychological phenomenon.
- Women like to talk, as we know...
- Oh, this is a beautiful myth born out of men's perception of women. There is an interesting study that perfectly illustrates this stereotype. If you ask a talking couple which of the two talked more, almost 100 percent of the male respondents would say that the woman was "too much. However, if you ask the third participant, who was just observing the conversation from aside, he would say that everyone talked the same, and sometimes the man was talking even more. This is how stereotypes arise, which, unfortunately, are very enduring.
- Why do you think women do not choose "male" professions? Is there a scientific explanation?
- Women do so because of anthropometric differences. Some professions involving grueling or extremely hard physical labor remain strictly male. Of course, there are women who can handle such work, just as there are men who cannot. Here it all comes down to labor safety, which is the responsibility of the employer. It is not very profitable for the employer, because in the case of injury to the employee's health, the employer will be obliged to pay the medical bills.
As for less demanding professions, such as plumbers or electricians, which do not require hard physical labor, there is the issue of gender roles. For example, in the past women could not be priests. However, the Reform branch of Judaism allowed this, and female rabbis emerged. The same will happen with other "borderline" professions that do not involve physical labor. This is rather a question for society: are we ready for a change in roles, and how comfortable everyone will be in the new roles.
This, by the way, also applies to the question of leadership, including in the political arena. There was a study, which showed that people in general do not care what gender their leader will be. Representatives of both sexes got the same percentage. But in life everyone "stands" for their own: women skew towards the female leader, while men have a slight yet pronounced skew towards the male leader. It turns out that here, too, it is not a neuroscientific, but a purely social issue that comes to the fore.
- What about scientific work? Is it true that men are better at the exact sciences and women are better at the humanities?
- Such statistics do exist, but it is not long that we live in a world of full access to equal opportunity. Much of the disproportion is due to sexism within individual organizations. In school, children learn on roughly equal terms. Everyone has the same inclinations. There is no difference in the mathematical abilities of girls and boys, but what is quite strong is the level of individual differences – and the influence of that very stereotype. More than one generation has grown up hearing that men are better at sciences and women better at humanities. As a result, boys go to physics and girls go to language school. Or take theatrical schools: it's very hard for girls to get into them, but they take boys quite willingly. And this has nothing to do with the fact that women are worse than men. It's just that working with them is easier, simpler, and more understandable for theater school masters.
It turns out that the choice of profession has nothing to do with gender. The paradigm is changing now, and that is great. One day it will change for good. Why did Moses in the Old Testament lead his people for 40 years across the desert? So that those who remembered what it was like to be a slave would die. When a generation grows up that doesn't know what sexism is, things will change. There will be equal numbers of Nobel laureates and professors of both sexes. Someday there will be honest, healthy and lively competition.