What does the male brain most resemble in the universe?’ (the answer is below).
‘Gender’ is a fast and handy way of coding populations and classifying individuals: it is a widely used shortcut, because it quickly evokes all sorts of associations about males and females. It allows us to be ‘cognitive misers’ when we make decisions and choices. But that’s all that coding by gender is.
There are infinite ways of coding populations: height; weight; education; nationality; food preferences; favourite football team. All fall short because all discard information about individuals in favour of group membership judgments and stereotypes. A better question than “do men and women lead differently?” is to ask “what collection of cognitive and non-cognitive traits (personality, motivation, grit, oratory, etc.) in a given context, time and place, lead to outcomes that employees value?” This is a very different way of thinking about leadership. After all, former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the supreme leader for wartime, but for peace? History has provided the answer. Elizabeth I of England, by contrast, was a leader for war and peace!
To assume coding by gender reflects some unchanging and immutable underlying biological reality that describes all we need to know about an individual. That such an assumption is a basis for action is simply wrong – and self-evidently so, when you consider the complexity and variation found within, and between, human beings.
It is not at all obvious that using gender as a proxy for the traits of leaders is the most useful way of ensuring the best leaders are selected. Nor is it the case that the traits of leaders are immutable qualities, independent of time and place, arising irrevocably from gender and brain differences. We need to rethink how we conceive of leaders, and realize that leaders are individuals who may, or may not, be appropriate to the needs of the time, place and context they are in.
And more than that, the cognitive and non-cognitive traits – personality, motivation, grit, oratory and so forth – of leaders are not an unchanging given of the male or female brain. They can be learned, honed, sharpened through deliberate and self-conscious practice: this is the great lesson from the behavioural and brain sciences for leaders or aspirant leaders. We humans are quite capable of learning and profiting from experience, and of being changed for the better, or worse, by our experiences.
If we want diversity in leadership as a good thing in itself, then we need to change how we think about gender and leadership. We need to shift the focus to the traits and skills required to fulfil the demands of the position. We need to design evaluation procedures that are benchmarked according to objective standards, and we need to design processes in organizations that select for skills and traits, and set aside gender as the selection variable. Not changing is easy to achieve – it is the approach of the cognitive miser – but who ever said anything worthwhile was easy?
And, of course, the thing the male brain most resembles is the female brain – this was not a trick question!