As an organizational neuropsychologist, I celebrate the unprecedented and long-overdue collaboration of a male and female brain that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will bring to the White House. Why? Because modern neuroscience tells us that “brain diversity” opens up an awesome advantage in leading, governing, and executive decision-making. Think of it as rocket fuel for powering the best of collective intelligence. Its potential to create the kind of positive, transformational change that America needs right now is enormous, especially amid the dueling health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A neurobiological reality
There are critically important differences in the way the male and female brain listen, collaborate, process information, solve problems, and make decisions. While these differences aren’t binary—they exist on a spectrum of maleness to femaleness—they are a neurobiological reality. And more importantly, they create an all-powerful strategic advantage, especially when leaders understand what they are and how to harness them. Consider these three reasons why.
One reason that men and women seem to think and act differently is due to the unique neural patterning of the male and female brain. Specifically, research shows that the male brain is optimized for intra-hemispheric communication while, conversely, the female brain is optimized for inter-hemispheric communication. In other words, the connectivity, or fiber pathways, in the female brain is more active between the two cerebral hemispheres, while in the male brain, it merely runs back and forth within each hemisphere.
Now don’t get me wrong. Each gender’s way of dealing with issues and relationships has its own particular advantages. Still, what centuries of neuroscience research and studies show is that the neural patterning in the female brain allows for an appreciably more iterative, emergent process. For instance, women tend to have a greater capacity to hold multiple, contradictory views in mind while, at the same time, remaining empathically tuned in to the persons holding them.
Combine this neural patterning with the considerably higher levels of oxytocin (known as the “bonding hormone”) in the female brain, and on the whole, you’re looking at women leaning in to collegiality and collaboration over a more adversarial approach, as so often demonstrated by men.
In their New York Times article, “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others,” the MIT researchers write of their study: “Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not ‘diversity’ (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered to a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at ‘mindreading’ than men.” Notably, by “mindreading,” the researchers are referring to the skill of social perception, a kind of social intelligence.
Too often, though, women are inadvertently being put into “survive” rather than “thrive” mode due to customary workplace cultures, structures, and practices. Whether across an organization or within individual work relationships, this is like buying a Ferrari only to drive it with the handbrake pulled on. It is a needless, unmitigated loss of power and potential.
It’s often said that Joe Biden’s capacity for empathy is his superpower. And as Peter Wehner writes in The Atlantic, “In the entire history of American presidential campaigns, there may never have been a wider gap in empathy than between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And it has rarely mattered more.”
But in this regard, as a man, Biden is somewhat unique. Much of his empathy has been born out of a career, as Michael Kruse observes in Politico Magazine, “all but bracketed by tragedy.” In 1972, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident and his two sons, Beau and Hunter, were seriously injured. And in 2015, Beau, who Biden calls “my soul,” died of a rare strain of brain cancer at the age of 46.
Otherwise, by nature, women are generally better, more natural empathizers than men. To be clear, the capacity to empathize isn’t exclusively female; in fact, it exists on a spectrum, or “empathy bell curve,” according to Simon Baron-Cohen, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Zero Degrees of Empathy. Still, over time, neuroscience continues to prove that women—whose bodies and brains alone have 5 to 20 times the oxytocin that men have— have a far greater instinct to empathize.
A profound pivot point
The Biden-Harris partnership will mark a profound pivot point in the history of the White House and presidential leadership. With such unprecedented, long-overdue brain diversity, the potential for positive, transformational change is enormous. And at a time when America needs it most, that is a big deal.
Kate Lanz is an organizational neuropsychologist, coauthor of All the Brains in the Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), founder and CEO of Mindbridge, and creator of Neurosmart, a trailblazing approach to helping corporate leaders use applied neuroscience and brain diversity to create next-level work cultures.