Brain Gender: Different, Yet Equal?

Is there really such a thing as brain gender?

In March 2019, researchers attempted to answer this question based on an MRI database of 490 men and 575 women. What they reported was relative to the structural differences between men and women:

“By using the designed 3D PCNN algorithm, we confirmed that the gender-related differences exist in the whole-brain FA images as well as in each specific brain regions. These gender-related brain structural differences might be related to gender differences in cognition, emotional control as well as neurological disorders.”

Their summary supports the theory that there are differences between a male and female brain, and that these differences determine our thinking, feeling, behavior, and psychological health. But, notice the keyword they used: “might.”

Unfortunately, they are not alone. For decades scientists have been pointing to similar findings and analysis, commonly accepted as fact. Consider the differences molecular biologist Dr. John Media describes in Brain Rules (Pear Press, 2008):

  • Men have a bigger amygdala, a structure that processes emotions.
  • The male brain produces serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, learning and memory, among other functions) more rapidly than the female brain.
  • Women have larger connectors in the corpus callosum, which links the brain’s right and left hemispheres. (The left hemisphere is thought to be the primary source of neural information for routine tasks. The right deals with novelty and innovation, including experiences and data that are less structured. The right hemisphere is more image-based and operates in the realm of metaphors.)

Research is important: it influences the way we teach, work, and relate to one another. But there are big problems with brain gender theories and studies. They frequently support gender stereotypes, create barriers, and limit individuals from reaching their potential.

The Power of Brain Gender Stereotype

It has been widely accepted that men and women differ in how they manage people and give orders. Studies pointed to how women soften their demands and statements, whereas men are more direct and unapologetic. For example, women use phrases like:

  • “Don’t you think?” (after presenting an idea)
  • “If you don’t mind?” (following a demand)
  • “This may be a crazy idea, but…” (preceding a suggestion)

Is this nature, or nurture?

Many women are culturally conditioned to encourage harmony in relationships, as evidenced by softened demands, hedged statements, and a more tentative communication style. But tentative communication doesn’t mean a woman actually feels tentative or lacks confidence. Similarly, more direct communication, as seen with men and some women, doesn’t mean a person is arrogant, bossy, or feels superior. These are learned communication styles: a matter of nurture.

The amygdala governs many emotional responses, as well as our ability to remember them. After experiencing a traumatic event, the female amygdala communicates with the left brain hemisphere. The opposite occurs in men: their amygdala communicates with the right hemisphere.

It’s been widely reported that women remember the emotional details of an event, while men recall the ultimate outcome. Furthermore, women use both hemispheres when speaking and processing verbal information, while men primarily use one. These facts are broadly accepted as matters of nature.

But as Cordelia Fine, PhD writes, “Our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes, and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.”

Recognize Neurosexism

The term “neurosexism,” coined by Fine, refers to a flawed belief that results from the intersection of neuroscience and sexism. The belief is based on the assumption that gender differences perceived in character and behavior are caused by biological differences between male and female brains. We now have growing evidence and research that points to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Gina Rippon, PhD, and author of The Gendered Brain (Vintage Digital, 2019), has analyzed gender-related differences in the brain. What she has found is that when the differences in brain size are accounted for, differences in key structures disappear. As Rippon explains in an interview with theguardian.com:

“The brain is a rule scavenger and it picks up its rules from the outside world. The rules will change how the brain works and how someone behaves. The ‘gender gap’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Greater Power of Neuroplasticity

We now know that the brain continues to grow well into our later years through a process called “neuroplasticity.” Specifically, brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change, and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time. Neuroplasticity accommodates learning by producing new neurons, cells that help transfer information. 

“By the close of the 20th century, the brain had come to be envisaged as mutable across the whole of life, open to environmental influences, damaged by insults, and nourished and even reshaped by stimulation—in a word, plastic.”~ Sociologist Nikolas Rose and graduate student Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind(Princeton University Press, 2013)

Neuroplasticity demonstrates that brain cells can change in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Not only is it possible to change our brain, we can change the way we look at brains, our nature, and our potential. Even as adults, our brains continually change by the work we do, the hobbies we have, our diet, exercise, thought patterns, and attitudes.

Research from Georgia State University suggests that society’s expectations about gender roles alter the human brain at the cellular level. And while our brain may want to quickly sift, sort, label, and file to conserve energy, humans aren’t that binary. We are misguided when we try to classify people into two distinct, many times opposite, and often disconnected forms of masculine and feminine.

The next time you hear someone make the argument that women are more emotional, consider this caution from Rippon, “A gendered world shapes everything, from educational policy and social hierarchies to relationships, self-identity, wellbeing and mental health.”

What’s most important is to recognize the stories we tell: to each other, and to ourselves. Are we building bridges for positive change? How are we encouraging each other, and ourselves, to grow, collaborate, and achieve, individually and together?

The Workplace Bully

Despite what we have learned over the past two decades, the workplace bully remains a key problem for leaders and managers. The experts¾academics, management consultants, industrial psychologists¾all report an increase in bullying. And it’s not limited by demographics, tax brackets, or titles: bullying is increasing in cubicles, manufacturing plants, and even executive suites.

According to a 2017 National Survey, 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace. This includes 19% of Americans who are bullied and another 19% who witness it, totaling an estimated 60.4 million Americans. Examples of the bullying are much more apparent via news outlets, social media, and the like.

For organizations and individuals, the costs are staggering. Some estimates exceed $150,000/bully/year. This costs employers and insurers $250 billion annually for direct employee health care expenses, turnover and re-training expenses, accidents related to stress-induced fatigue, litigation and settlements, and resistance to top-down change initiatives.

Traditionally, experts recommend that those bullied document the events, calculate the costs, and present these to the employer with a request to remove the bully. Unfortunately, the reported success rate for this approach is only 22.3%. The best approach for individuals and organizations is prevention: protect your employees with policies that enforce zero tolerance for workplace bullying and model the behavior.

Recognize Bullying, Harassment, and Aggression

In today’s culture, workplace bullying is defined as unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm someone who feels powerless to respond.

According to the official website of the U.S. government, stopbullying.gov:

“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior…that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: …such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”

Generally speaking, bullying in the workplace goes largely unrecognized by employers, but great leaders and managers watch and listen for the signs:

  • Changes in employee behavior (withdrawn, absent; agitated, frustrated)
  • Individual pitting or competition
  • Blaming, or taking undeserved credit
  • Gossip, mockery, jokes, or other forms of humiliation
  • Cliques, alliances, or teams, that are not inclusive and supportive that lead to shifts, or redistribution of responsibilities, tasks or assignments
  • Spying, interfering, obstructing, poaching, undermining, or sabotaging

Aggression may involve a single incident, while bullying involves repetition and patterns of behavior. It is often subtle and hard to put one’s finger on. Bottom line, workplace bullies undermine an individual’s right to dignity at work.

Understand the Risks

While workplace bullies are likely to target peers, bullying crosses all levels of organizations, from the top down and from the bottom up. A 2019 Study suggests that stressful situations increase the risk of exposure to workplace bullying.

According to the recent study, A Risk Factor for Exposure to Workplace Bullying,

Employees reporting a higher degree of imbalance between efforts and rewards (i.e. who are under-rewarded in comparison to their efforts) have a higher likelihood to be a target of bullying. The perceived injustice may lead employees to engage in norm-breaking behavior and also signal low social standing to others, thereby potentially eliciting negative behaviors from others.”

Other risk factors include:

  • Major organizational changes (mergers, restructuring, new technology, or re-tooling)
  • Staff/resource shortages
  • Poor communication (silos, fragmentation, and one-way communication)
  • Lack of policies
  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Increased goals/demands

Left unchecked, bullying can become status-quo for an organization, creating a bully culture and a spiral of abuse.

Bully Culture

A bully culture is created when bullying becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture. According to author Tim Field and founder of bullyonline.org, there are several different types of workplace bullies, and distinctions between corporate, organizational, and institutional bullying:

Organizational bullying: when an organization struggles to adapt to changing markets, reduced income, cuts in budgets, imposed expectations, and other external pressures. [short-term occurrences]

Corporate bullying: when an employer abuses employees with impunity especially where the law is weak and jobs are scarce. Examples include: coercing employees, unfair dismissal, denial of benefits, spying/monitoring, creating competition between employees, encouraging fabrication of colleague complaints, etc.

Institutional bullying: when bullying becomes entrenched and accepted as part of the culture. Examples include: people are moved, permanent roles are replaced by short-term contracts on less favorable terms with little alternative but to accept; workloads increase, schedules change, roles change, career progression paths are blocked or terminated, etc., all without consultation.

Threat Assessment

Violence in the workplace is not uncommon: in 2017, assaults resulted in 18,400 injuries and 458 fatalities, according to the National Safety Council. While healthcare workers, service providers, and education workers report more violence than other industries, it can happen anywhere. Training to recognize signs of a workplace bully can help. Many industries have also adopted a threat assessment process to prevent violence. The American National Standards Institute endorsed the use of such teams in colleges in 2010 and workplaces in 2011.

Threat Assessment Process

The threat assessment process involves three functions: identify, assess, and manage. Threat assessment is different from the more established practice of violence-risk assessment, which attempts to predict an individual’s capacity to generally react to situations violently. Instead, threat assessment aims to interrupt people on a pathway to commit violence.

Forensic clinical psychologist Dewey Cornell, Ph.D., describes threat assessment for American Psychological Association in public health terms: prevention, not prediction:

Just as seatbelts and speed limits prevent injuries without predicting who will crash a car, and restrictions on cigarette sales reduce lung cancer deaths without pinpointing who will get the disease, threat assessments aim to prevent violence without profiling potential attackers. We don’t intervene because we predict someone is dangerous, we want to intervene because they’re troubled or there’s conflict or people are worried about them. Prevention becomes a bonus or a secondary gain from dealing with the underlying issue."

How it works:

  • Identify. Authorities identify threats. To do that, people need to know when, how and where to report concerns.
  • Assess. Gather and evaluate information from multiple sources to better understand if the person is planning violence. That could involve security professionals, supervisors, or human resources managers talking to the person of concern, his or her peers and supervisors, as well as looking to social media sites. Authorities may also analyze the subject’s current situation. They ask: Has the subject recently lost a job, gone through a divorce, or filed for bankruptcy? How has he or she handled adversity in the past? Investigators ascertain whether or not the person of concern has a motive, a target, and the organizational skills to carry out an attack. Can he or she get a weapon and use it?
  • Manage. More often than not, an assessment reveals a manageable underlying issue such as bullying, anxiety, or depression that mental health professionals are well trained to handle.

According to Cornell, "We found in case after case, with a systematic, careful approach focused on the problem that stimulated the threat, the threat can go away and the concern about violence diminishes. Every threat is really a symptom of a problem that someone can’t resolve."

It is imperative for leaders and managers to recognize the signs of a workplace bully and address issues before violence erupts.

Correct a Bully Problem

Psychologists have typically looked at violence from an individual perspective, such as who might be likely to commit violent acts, however, they need to dispel the myths and identify the organizational factors that may lead someone to bully in the workplace.

Dispel the Myths

  • Not at my work
  • It’s a fact of life (and we can’t stop it)

The truth is 80% of people studied in 2016 had experienced cyberbullying in the workplace, according to the University of Sheffield and Nottingham University. But there are things that individuals and organizations can do to correct a bully problem. The system, or the organization, is responsible for a psychologically healthy environment. Correct a bully problem by addressing organizational issues:

  • Train employees on how to respond to bullying, how to communicate with difficult people, and other interpersonal training programs.
  • Examine your corporate culture. Check with the human resources department for complaints of unfair treatment or stress and disability claims. Look for patterns within a department.
  • Evaluate your anti-bullying policies, procedures, and processes. Ensure there is an effective and supportive system in place for reporting difficult interpersonal issues.
  • Provide adequate coaching or counseling for victims and offenders. One of the most crucial aspects of creating a healthy workplace is what a company does when it finds a problem employee or manager. The instigator should be made aware that the behavior is inappropriate and not given further responsibility over others. To do so would be to institutionalize the inappropriate behavior.
  • Set clear examples and limits about appropriate behavior at work. Enforce standards and policies in a positive way, early on.
  • Mitigate stress. Certainly, managers do not have control over all the variables that may trigger stress and negativity, but when people perceive a fair workplace, they don’t act out. Provide a sense of employment security, a feeling that it is possible to move within the organization as change occurs. Employees also feel they are trusted, respected, treated with dignity, and given some control over their jobs.

Practicing respect in the workplace and eliminating bullying changes a whole company. Production and efficiency goes up, morale improves, and profits soar. Research indicates that even psychologically unhealthy people are much less likely to engage in violence in a healthy work organization.

Prevent Workplace Bullies

There is no federal anti-bullying legislation in the United States, however, 30 states have introduced workplace anti-bullying bills in recent years, and businesses in California are required to train supervisors on how to identify abusive conduct. But even without protection under federal or state law*, bully behavior can be prevented and prohibited with employer policies and practices.

Don Philpott, a former senior correspondent for Reuters and editor of International Homeland Security Journal suggests a five-step process for understanding and preventing workplace violence in The Workplace Violence Prevention Handbook, (Bernan Press, 2019). This approach can also be used to prevent workplace bullies from causing further harm to individuals and organizations:

  • Understand
  • Detect
  • Defuse and protect
  • Assess and contain
  • Prevent

Anti-bully Policies and Practices

What are your anti-bullying policies and practices? How do they prevent bullying? Ensure there is an effective and supportive system in place for reporting difficult interpersonal issues.

Attorney Jessica Westerman suggests that employers:

  • Create an inclusive culture: prioritize inclusivity.
  • Survey all employees (anonymously) to identify problems.
  • Tailor policies and procedures in response to survey findings.
  • Establish clear anti-bullying policies, and communicate via writing in all languages used in organization.
  • Conduct workplace civility training to promote respect for all.
  • Conduct bystander intervention training to empower co-workers to intervene and create a sense of collective responsibility.
  • Establish and implement clear and simple procedures to report incidents and maintain employee’s confidentiality.

Key to preventing workplace bullying is the knowledge and belief that such incidents can be promptly reported, heard, and investigated, and that workplace bullies will be held accountable. Therefore, it is imperative that leaders create and adopt policies and codes of conduct that address respect in the workplace and bullying.

* Bullying is actionable under federal law when the basis for it is tied to a protected category, such as color, national origin, race, religion, sex, age, disability and genetic information. If bullying amounts to some other civil or criminal wrong, such as assault or battery, it could amount to a claim under state law.