One of the biggest “aha” moments of my life happened in a self-development course in my mid-30′s when I realized that I didn’t have to practice law like a man in order to be successful. I could be feminine and still be taken seriously. This realization was enormously liberating, as I was able to relax in my own skin and stop trying to be someone I wasn’t. I discovered that a more collaborative and “softer” approach in negotiations or when dealing with opposing counsel was more successful for me than the aggressive male style I had been trying to emulate. A friend once told me about a similar experience after “coming out” as a gay man. When he was able to stop pretending to be “straight” he had so much more energy to be successful in his career.
Recently I had another “aha” moment almost as significant as the first one. I was attending an executive coaching conference in Santa Barbara and heard Barbara Annis, one of the co-authors of “Leadership and the Sexes” (www.baainc.com) speak about the differences in the male and female brains. Recent neurological studies of brain scans have shown how differently men and women process information, make decisions, negotiate, handle emotion, and communicate – in fact everything the brain does. The genders are equally intelligent – just intelligent in different ways.
Annis’ book gives many examples of how differently men and women interpret the world around them. For example:
- Women tend to use more words during the day especially when reading and writing are included. Men often process fewer words than women and may zone out if discussions become too lengthy or wordy. This may seem like the man is not interested or doesn’t care. He may also be frustrated that the woman is not getting to the point fast enough.
- Women’s brains are wired to cross-connect information from both hemispheres and are more likely to move from what appears to be one topic to another that seems unrelated. They are actually “connecting the dots” that may need to be connected during a project and seeing opportunities or pitfalls that should be noticed.
- The links between the emotional centres of the brain are linked differently for women to their thought processing and communication centres. Thus a man might need many hours to process a major emotion-laden experience, whereas a woman may be able to process it quite quickly. This often creates a lot of tension between women and men.
These examples show that the more we understand how differently men and women process information and emotions, the better we can create law firms where the strengths of each gender are appreciated and not discounted.
Annis point out that many of us have what she calls “bridge brains” – brains that have the characteristics of both genders. I recommend trying the BBC on-line survey (“What sex is your brain?) at www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/add_user.shtml).
I often hear from women lawyers who work in firms where there are more male lawyers than female, that they find the work environment to be uncomfortably male. Since many law firms and corporations were started by men and are largely populated by male lawyers this is not surprising. This male environment is often taken to be the norm and thought to be gender neutral.
Just as I did as a young lawyer starting out, many women feel they must adapt their personalities to fit this male environment in order to succeed. Until I read “Leadership and the Sexes” I had difficulty understanding what made a work environment male as opposed to gender neutral. I now see that if our brains process our experiences very differently we will have different expectations of each other. The strengths that women lawyers bring can easily be discounted by male (and sometimes female) partners who think there is only one way of approaching or solving a problem.
Similarly, men and women socialize differently. I often hear women lawyers complain about the lack of collegiality in their offices – that their male colleagues will arrive in the morning, go straight to their offices, close the door with barely a “good morning” or any attempt to make personal contact with their colleagues. The women find this to be cold and unfriendly while the men see morning chatter as unnecessary and even distracting. Reading how differently our brains are wired around social interaction, the differences in behavior are now more understandable.
Recently I was chairing a meeting of the BC Women Lawyers Forum where there were about 60 women lawyers in the room and only one man. I was thinking about the many times when I started out in the law where I was the only woman at large legal gatherings of men but how unusual this was for this sole male lawyer.
When you are in that situation, you know instantly that you are in a gathering where the behavior and the rules are different. You watch carefully to make sure that you are not offending anyone by what you say and you adapt your behavior so that the people in the room take you seriously. While we know through experiences like this that the genders behave differently, the assumption has been that it is because our family and society has socialized us differently. The new research on brain science shows that we are actually hard-wired differently and bring different and complimentary skills to each situation.
A lot has been written about how differently men and women communicate but “Leadership and the Sexes” shows how much deeper these differences go. If we can build more gender intelligent workplaces where we understand and appreciate what both men and women bring to the practice of law, we will not only serve our clients better but also create working environments where women, especially feel comfortable in being who they really are.