Gender Science at the Leadership Table

PRICE COMPETITION, alternative business structures, commoditization, lower profits, changing leverage structures: all themes that dominate the current language of law firm leadership.

All of these themes require that we think differently. How do we find what we need to think in new, creative ways? Look around your law firm; you have what you need right now. You have the tools and resources to think differently if you leverage gender intelligence to harness the creativity and perspective necessary for future success.

The ideas touched upon here can be explored in more depth in the book Leadership and the Sexes by Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis. In addition, a 54-minute lecture by Gurian on YouTube Authors@Google: Michael Gurian.

Karen MacKay

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

This scientific work was published in 2008 and shines a light on the natural, biological distinctions between men and women and how their brains work. The authors explore how gender is hardwired and can be understood scientifically. They explain that natural brain variances have positive implications for gender-intelligent leadership. They help us to notice and appreciate differences between men and women. I submit the notion that leveraging these dissimilarities is more important today than ever before. To tackle the challenges cited at the beginning of this column, we simply must think creatively to give current orthodoxy a quarter turn—or indeed reset or restart how we see the business of law. While you were distracted by the global economic meltdown of 2008 and its subsequent outcomes since, you may well have missed this book.

Given the increasing number of women who are being asked to serve in leadership roles in the firms I am privileged to serve, it's perhaps time to explore gender intelligence and how these concepts can be applied today. If we consider what we know scientifically, we can leverage male and female brains to intelligently explore new ways of thinking. When we understand our differences, we can perhaps avoid difficult situations at the leadership table. Highlighted here are four key areas where men and women bring different strengths: how we gather information, how we connect and communicate, how we naturally process highly charged situations and how we focus and problem-solve.

Gathering information

Women naturally take in more information through their five senses than men do. Women store this information in more detail than men do for use in future conversation. Women and men see things differently too. Female retinas have more P ganglion cells that are used for seeing color and detail. Male retinas have more M ganglion cells that pick up physical movement. Imagine a team that could leverage its collective ability to gather information and team members who have the trust and confidence to say to each other, What have we missed?

Connecting and communicating

Men and women connect with each other differently. While men may use more physicality to connect—through sports or a slap on the back—women may use more words, express more feelings and try to bond by showing appreciation for others. Whether speaking or writing, women use more words than men. While they are doing so, men may tune out or glaze over in a meeting. A leadership team that develops strategies for changing the pace and structures for staying on track will leverage the strengths of both genders.

Science in highly charged situations

Change causes stress. Change that impacts one's autonomy, income or both can be emotionally charged. According to Gurian and Annis, the way our midbrain or limbic systems work, women can process a highly charged experience immediately, whereas it may take a man hours to do so. Layer on top of the science that a male leader with a preference for introversion may need time to process an emotionally charged situation and may do his best thinking in the car on the way home after the meeting—and be judged as weak. A woman with a preference for extraversion may deal with an emotionally charged situation using many more words than the men in the room, processing while talking—and be judged as scattered or emotional.

In a firm with the collective will to innovate and the trust amongst the team members to have healthy debate, conflict is inevitable. Leaders who don't care enough about the firm to argue for it may not be the leaders you want at the helm. Consider how men's and women's brains are chemically different. Under threat male brains secrete testosterone and vasopressin, chemicals related to aggression and protecting territory. Under the same circumstances female brains secrete estrogen, progesterone, serotonin (a calming chemical) and oxytocin (a bonding chemical). Imagine a leadership team that can harness both perspectives—the relationship builders and the action-oriented aggression.

Problem-solving perspectives

When trying to think differently about the challenges facing your firm, women on your leadership team may be able to connect a wide range of elements that heretofore were not explored together. Men, on the other hand, may focus on one theme. Men may see otherwise unconnected ideas as distractions. This can cause tension in the group or it can be leveraged. Think about the science of men and women of equal intelligence: Men have approximately six times more gray matter, which enables them to localize brain activity yet makes multitasking more difficult. Women have 10 times more white matter, which facilitates connectivity between right and left brain, and integrative thinking. So get out the white board and dare to think differently.

Leadership and the Sexes explores in great depth various aspects of brain science. Differences in blood flow, and in the structure of our brains, and in brain chemistry. These impact every aspect of how we relate to each other and how we explore problems. I submit that you have the resources in your firm today to tackle some intriguing challenges facing your firm and, indeed, the profession. I encourage you to explore these concepts as a group and learn how to leverage and appreciate your differences.

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I encourage you to explore these concepts as a group and learn how to leverage and appreciate your differences.


This article was originally published for the May/June 2015 issue of Law Practice Magazine. Copyright © Phoenix Legal Inc.