Leadership Code Meets Gender Science, Part II of 4 Parts

In part 2 of this series,we explore what science tells us may be the sources of classic disconnects between men and women in the workplace.

The game was called “Classic Greek Explosives.”  All 100 of my classmates in Section A at an East Coast business school in the US played at the same time, forming, in effect, a highly competitive marketplace of buyers and sellers.  The goal for the assigned sellers like me was to price our bids optimally in each of a fast-paced series of rounds in order to maximize profit (a somewhat tricky interplay between margin and volume).  At the end of the period, the person who made the most money would be declared the winner.  


Imagine my pride and excitement when our Managerial Economics professor called out the winner: “Mr. Sweetman!  Where is Mr. Sweetman?” He peered through his thick glasses at the enormous name tags that had been on our desks all semester (it was, I think, November).  The fact that he had no idea who I was and had reflexively defaulted to a male winner didn’t bother me a bit. After all, I, the English major, had beaten a seething mass of freakishly competitive economics majors and engineers to win The Classic Greek Explosives game!  I had arrived!

“Well done,” beamed the old gent kindly. “What was your algorithm?  Please share with us your formula.”

“Well, I didn’t use a mathematical algorithm,” I began modestly.  “I made an educated guess about where to start based on the case facts, and then recalibrated my offer with each round based on what I sensed the market reaction was.  I soon saw a pretty clear relationship between the asking price and the market share I could garner…”

“What?” he startled.  “No algorithm?”

“No.” I sensed trouble.

“You GUESSED?” Disbelief mingled with scorn.


“Well, it was an educated guess based on…”

“Wha, wha, well, then, you didn’t win!” he sputtered.  “You need an algorithm to win.  This won’t work.”

 He turned his back on me, and re-examined the results clutched in his shaking hand. “Where is Mr…?”  And the prize went elsewhere.

I was floored.  Embarrassed.  Insulted.  Angry.  I was also young.   Could he be right? Does one always need an algorithm?  But why?  Algorithm based on what?  Aren’t these formulas just a bunch of assumptions put into symbols anyway – educated guesses in block letters? My answer had made very good sense, and was not just one lucky guess but clearly a robust solution proven over a series of competitive rounds. I wanted to tell him that I had reasoned it out, then tested in real time, and truly won.  But I was young, he was clearly not interested, and I was not in the habit of challenging tenured faculty.  I kept my thoughts to myself, and I doubt he ever thought about it again.

For years, this seemingly small episode rankled beyond all proportion.  I was endlessly annoyed by…what? By having my best problem solving abilities de-valued, dismissed, waived off, ignored?  And, of course, by not speaking up on my own behalf.  A good three or four years after graduation, I shared that frustrating episode with my then-boss.  He gave me a better explanation than I had been able to come up with on my own. 

“When Minnesota Fats sinks a billiard ball in the corner pocket,” he said.  “he is working the complex geometry and physics of that table:  the ball, the cue, the tabletop, the friction of the felt, the size and depth of the pockets. He may not be calculating the angles the way your ME professor would, but you bet that he’s doing it just the same – and a lot more quickly with better results.   That’s why he wins. In that game of Classic Greek Explosives, you were Minnesota Fats.” I felt understood – and vindicated. 


I used to think that this was just my story but I have come to realize that this is a very female story.  Or, should l say, a very male and female story.  Not just because I solved the problem in the way that I did, but the particular reaction of the professor to the solution, his easy dismissal not only of the answer but of me.  And then, of course, my own emotional reaction, my long and searing memory of the thing – even the fact that the professor had no idea that “Mr.” Sweetman was a “Ms.” or where she sat.  Let me share with you what I have learned from Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis about the male v. female brain, and you will see begin to see what I mean.

* * *

Most of us, concerned about fairness, and anxious to avoid becoming the next Larry Summers before his redemption on the Obama team, avoid sorting capabilities or characteristics by gender (at least publicly). We greatly – and rightly – fear stereotyping either boys or girls, or men or women. Since IQ tests, schools grades and other measures attest to the intelligence of both sexes in just about every intellectual pursuit when individuals are allowed to pursue and develop their talents without prejudice, we are somewhat uncertain about this question of differences.  We can all name men who are excellent at speaking and writing, and women who are world class in math and science.  Some lucky folks even excel at both.  So we have to ask: are there truly differences?   Or are there just two spectra with a whole lot of overlap, with the whole subject greatly confused by cultural expectations and how we nurture our boys and girls?

In fact, Michael Gurian and others tell us that tens of thousands of PET scans, MRI scans and SPECT imaging reveal important gender-based differences between the physical brains of men and women.  Not just the physical structures, but blood flow, oxygenation, hormonal wash, and other subtle processes that affect how the brain takes in information, sorts, values, connects, uses and communicates it. The conclusion of brain researchers is that men and women may arrive at conclusions similar in quality and accuracy but by very different pathways – and that while they are in the process of working their way down those pathways, they can seem to be miles apart.  If that professor had not cut me off in mid-sentence, he might have found that my answer was eerily similar to the one the runner-up had calculated. That perceived distance is at the root of our gender-based difficulties in relating to each other and causing each other harm.  It may also be a key reason why even the most talented and successful women either jump or get pushed as they near the top of the organization, no matter how much they want to succeed.  Time and again, research shows that they are exhausted by the effort of fitting in to the male model. 

Here is what the brain researchers have found:

·         Men have more gray matter; women have more white matter.  Gray matter localizes brain activity into a single active brain center. White matter connects brain centers in the neural network.   As Gurian describes it, the gray/white matter difference goes a long way toward explaining why men tend to task-focus on one element or pattern without distraction better than women may – but also explains why women are often better at making important connections, and therefore integrating widely disparate elements in ways that men don’t.   Interestingly, a woman typically has 15 to 20% more blood flow in her brain than a man does at any given moment in time.  Does this further enable simultaneous use of different parts of her brain in ways that he cannot? Researchers believe that this is likely


·         The  hippocampus is a major memory center in the brain.  The male hippocampus is generally less active than the female’s during emotional experiences in the workplace. The male hippocampus is also less active during “relational” experiences.  The female hippocampus is also much more connected to the word centers of the brain.  This may explain why I remember this Classic Greek Explosives incident with such force so many years after it happened – and still feel a need to write The Untold Story about it.   

·         The female occipital and parietal lobes are more active than the male’s.  This difference can affect, among other things, the negotiation of deals and daily conflict and communication situations, as they explain in great detail and at great length in the book.

·         The male temporal lobe is generally less active than that of the female, which means women have a greater comparative ability to hear words and transfer what they hear, read and see into written words.  The conclusion: that  men and women often use words for different purposes.

The headlines from this analysis are these:  Men and women take in information very differently.  Women tend to use more of their senses, and attach more emotion as they process and as they remember. Women are also much more likely to integrate and make cross-connections while men are more likely to focus on task.  We will get into much more detail on how this plays out in the workplace in blog 3 of this four part series.

For more on gender science of the brain, visit Michael Gurian’s site. For more on Leadership Code, please visit our website on Leadership Code.