This is How Men and Women Are Wired to React Differently at the Office
Saying that men and women handle emotions differently is like saying ice is cold. Men and women are just wired differently. There is hardly a man or woman reading this that hasn’t been frustrated by the opposite sex. We’ve all had a time when we tried to understand the emotional reaction of someone of the opposite gender. Or we tried to get the opposite gender to understand us. Sometimes we can be lighthearted and laugh about our failed efforts. Sometimes we just want to bang our heads against the wall.
In business, there is still a prejudice against each gender’s actions or reactions to certain situations. While this post doesn’t seek to condone, condemn or justify those prejudices, it does seek to explain where the differences in the actions come from. It’s the old question of nature vs. nurture coming into play, and both are culprits.
Let’s start with nature’s role in how we are wired:
Men and women’s brains process emotional events very differently. A Stanford University study showed women increasingly emotional images, and activity increased in nine areas of the brain controlling emotion and memory. The men’s brains, when stimulated by the same images, showed higher activity in only two emotion/memory-related areas. (No jokes, ladies!)
Three weeks later, when these same volunteers were given a surprise memory test, the women significantly outperformed the men. The lack of emotion-to-memory connectivity within the brain could well explain why a woman might remember minute details of an emotional situation while a man involved in the same situation cannot recall even the larger details.
The Stanford study and many others have scientifically proven that men have fewer connections between their left- and right-brain hemispheres. Why is this significant? Because the right hemisphere deals with emotion and the left hemisphere controls speech. The deficit of “bridges” between the left and right hemispheres in men could explain why they find it challenging to talk about their feelings. What women see as stubborn male stoicism may just be a physiological difference between males and females.
It starts early in life too
A research study on children, using a recording of a crying baby, showed young boys turning off the recording quicker than the girls. The initial thought was that this was “yet another example of male insensitivity.” However, further research showed that the boys had much higher levels of stress hormones in their bloodstreams than the girls. Because males seem more sensitive to the fight-or-flight hormone (cortisol), they learn to avoid situations that trigger the hormone’s release.
Multiple studies show that women are more likely to cry than men. Women cry more frequently, and that they cry more intensely.
Women secrete more serotonin and oxytocin than men do. Serotonin is a calming hormone and oxytocin is a bonding hormone. Oxytocin also links the brain’s verbal centers and helps people under stress kick into a nurturing mode — rather than a fight or flight mode.
Men secrete 20 times more testosterone than women, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our emotional and aggressive tendencies, is larger in men. Both of these things contribute to the male’s likelihood of being more aggressive than the female.
Or, are we wired more by nurture’s role?
The stereotype that women—due to their affiliative natures—are happier and less angry than men, was put under scrutiny by professors from the University of Quebec, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College. Doctors Hess, Adams, and Kleck showed study participants gender-neutral drawings of facial expressions depicting a variety of emotions.
They then placed a “male” or “female” hair style on the same gender-neutral drawings and asked participants to rate the degree of emotion on a six-point scale. When the drawing was apparently male, subjects rated him as less angry than when the same drawing was apparently female. When the “woman” expressed happiness, participants rated her as less joyful than the “male” with the same facial expression.
This study and the work of Purdue University indicate that when men and women react differently than we expect them to act—based on widely accepted stereotypes of how they “should” act in emotional situations—we pay more attention.
Because women are stereotyped as more emotional, we expect more emotional reactions from them and are less likely to react to their displays of emotion. Many people tend to validate men’s emotional reactions—and see them as more legitimate—because they are stereotypically rarer.
Then, add society’s prejudices on top of it all
American society urges males to succeed and women to support. From early on, we bombard boys with emotionally challenging “rules”—boys don’t cry … don’t be a quitter … be a leader, not a follower … always be number one. We teach them to reach for the sky at all costs, and to stifle their emotional reactions along the way.
Girls, on the other hand, we drummed into their heads to be polite, sharing, caring, and cooperative. Moreover, they learn—through actions if not words—that their opinions don’t carry the same weight as the opinions of males. Even in today’s modern classrooms, in a profession dominated by women, teachers call on boys three times as frequently. And, we’ve excused disruptive male behavior with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Unfortunately, given today’s headlines that begat the #MeToo movement, it spills over into all walks of life. One bright spot to come out of all this pain for women is that much-needed change is coming for both genders.