Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Michael Gurian: Leadership and the Sexes

I recently attended a talk by Michael Gurian, who was promoting his new book, Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business. With a title like that, I couldn't help but be intrigued, but also skeptical.

The focus of his talk was not specifically the retention of women in STEM professions, although he did mention that as a problem he hoped to solve by pointing out gender differences. His point was that there are, indeed, biological differences between men and women, in brain activity and development in particular. While those differences don't translate to differences in intelligence, the way we communicate and learn is different. He showed us MRI scans of brains, demonstrating a distinct difference between men's and women's brains to emphasize his point.

Women's brains have more white matter, while men's have more grey matter. This means that women have more connections between different areas of the brains. Thus, men are good at being very single-mindedly focused on one task at a time, while women are very good at communicating, responding to facial cues, and making connections. When at rest, men's brains show much less activity on brain scans then women's. Science is very much a male-brain profession, Gurian argues, so some specfic ways for encouraging women in STEM include:
  • Discard the Ivory Tower paradigm for STEM. The truth is that science has become a more communal effort and that collaboration and communication are vital.
  • Increase mentoring.
  • Deal proactively with gender differences. For instance, women tend to go into meetings looking for community and reciprocity, men go in looking to express dominance.

I didn't necessarily agree with everything Gurian said. Some of the behaviors he described as being male-specific are ones that I see in myself: being fidgety when bored, for instance. He put up some cartoons in an attempt to encourage us to have a "sense of humor" about these issues: for example, one depicting the amount of time and money a man versus a woman spend at the mall buying a pair of jeans. I didn't laugh. Cartoons like that only serve to reinforce stereotypes. He also cited a study showing that infant boys prefer to stare at mobiles while infant girls prefer faces, which might have been an interesting point if I hadn't recently read a thorough debunking of the study at the Sociological Images blog.

Still, I think that those of us interested in promoting women in science do need to consider that women and men are different, whether because of nature or nurture, and that those differences must be acknowledged in order to level the playing field. This is analogous to the failure of "color-blind" approaches to combating racism. Pretending that we are all the same, or rather that we are all just like white men, ignores the real problems faced in creating true diversity.

All in all, I found Michael Gurian's talk intriguing, and made me curious to read his book, but not curious enough to actually buy it. If any of you have read it, please comment below!

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