Understanding the Brain: Why men and women lead differently

By Timothy Maurice Webster

For centuries, the fusion of poor science, religion and backward cultural beliefs propped up patriarchy and dealt a blow to women’s leadership aspirations the world over. The enlightenment era (17th-19th century) helped usher in healthier dialogue around women’s rights outside the home.

The world is beginning to awaken to the power of women leaders. However, it’s critical to acknowledge the slow pace of change. Lohan Brizendine, author of The Female Brain put her finger on the pulse when she wrote, “For much of the twentieth century, most scientists assumed that women were essentially small men, neurologically and in every other sense except for their reproductive functions.”

I sought the insights of neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, author of Neuroscience for Leadership. After a view conversations, she invited me to her Neuroscience for Leadership class at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston to hear the latest ideas coming out of the scientific and leadership community about how men and women lead differently.

The three-day program consisted of mind-centering yoga classes as well as dietary offerings designed to ensure maximum brain participation. But the star of the educational show is by far Swart, an Oxford-educated medical doctor who decided to invest her energy in ensuring leaders achieve their brain power.

About half-way through the course, while I learned a lot about why it’s not good to have coffee after lunch and the importance of uninterrupted sleep, my purpose for being there was clear – to understand how the brain of women and men are different and how this impacts their leadership potential.

Swart explained while structurally the minor size difference between men’s and women’s brains are very little (on average, men’s brains are 10% larger), it does not translate to additional capacity to lead. Anyone paying attention to world affairs would know this but it was good to hear it at MIT. Studies show the majority of male and female brains show masculine and feminine features that varied. This means that if every person you met took out their brain and put it on the table, you would not be able to go, ‘oh that’s a man’s or woman’s brain’. Most of us share traits from both. Research shows around 98% does not show a clear gender profile at all.

Things became very interesting when Swart began to note that our circuitry (or what’s commonly known as the connectome) has different wiring in key areas. These different proverbial road maps help explain why men and women lead differently. This does not mean men or women are better, it simply suggests we should highlight the strengths of each and be aware of what we may need to change. For example, women have more connections going from left to right across the two halves of the brain. The left brain is responsible for logical thinking and the right, intuition, which could offer women an advantage when analyzing several sources and and coming to a healthy conclusion. Men on the other hand have more connections from the back to the front. These connection patterns help heighten their perception, offering more motor and spatial skills and these skills assist in hand-eye coordination activities such as catching a ball.

These patterns are not hard rules that can’t be changed and the environment plays an important role when it comes to the brain’s wiring. Swart highlights the differences between women’s and men’s brain output is impacted by a complex eco-system of influences such as diet, friends, parenting as well as whether or not your boss emits too many stress hormones. One of the aspects of our brains that make us remarkable is the ability to make patterns, signals and connections stronger by committing to practices. So, overriding a negative pattern is completely possible through what Swart calls neuroplasticity, which is the gateway to new behaviours – and the good news: this potential occurs late into your retirement years.

Here are some common generic differences: Female leadership traits make women group problem solvers, participative, vocally encouraging, help others express emotion, and inductive in solving problems. Male leadership traits are: Personally problem solve, hierarchical, encourages less feeling and more action, downplays the role of emotions and deductive in problem solving.

The course was attended by students from around the world. The main takeaway from Swart was men and women both have the potential to lead at the highest level and can rewire their brain when taking conscious ownership. Somewhere between our conditioned programming and our need to participate in the leadership environment is the ability to choose.

Timothy Maurice Webster is an author in brain and brand science. 

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. 

This article originally featured in Forbes Women Africa, April/May 2017, page 95.