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Differences of communication between genders: some fallacies exposed

By Kali Goldstone - posted Monday, 11 February 2013


Ostensible differences between male and female abilities - from reading maps to multi-tasking, from verbal skills to expressing emotion – are claimed to be based on variations in the hard-wiring of brains at birth. This dichotomy has had major implications in the workplace for women and has become widespread, particularly in the wake of publications like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Whatever the supposedly 'typical' male or female behaviour, there seems to be no shortage of people who claim there is scientific evidence about the fundamental differences between men and women. These advocates claim that evolutionary differences separate the intellects of men and women, and it is all down to our ancient hunter-gatherer genes that program our brains.

Certain researchers have found that corporate decision-makers often stereotypically assume that women lack the personality characteristics necessary for top leadership roles. This predisposition is based on the assertion that women are naturally nurturing and cannot make tough decisions.

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While the number of women entering managerial positions has steadily increased, the position of "manager" continues to be identified within masculine terms. Research reveals that because masculine characteristics are identified with managerial effectiveness, like aggressiveness and competitiveness, men are perceived as more capable, more acceptable and are preferred for management positions.

Relatively few women reach senior executive positions and those who do, often have communication styles usually associated with traditional male management paradigms, demonstrating what has been termed the "Thatcher factor."

The traditional patterns are male patterns and as CNN news Executive Gail Evans noted: "Men know the rules of business because they wrote them." Thus, "most cross-gender communication problems in public contexts are women's problems, because the international rules in such situations are men's rules'. Not only are the problems women's, but women themselves can be constructed as 'the problem'."

For those who believe that such distinctions are based on delusions of gender, then Dr Cordelia Fine is your woman!Dr Fine, a psychologist and an associate professor based at the University of Melbourne, asserts that there is no convincing evidence that our brains are hardwired according to gender, and no such thing as "biological destiny."

Claims that men are naturally analytical and competitive while women are compassionate and nurturing are, according to Dr Fine, based on bad science – and, at worst, are "monstrous fictions" that are standing in the way of greater sex equality.

Termed ''neurosexism,'' Dr Fine believes the deceptiveness of such sex differences is a "modern version of the tired old sexist ideas about a woman's proper place."

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In fact, Dr Fine declares that there are no major neurological differences between the sexes. There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, but the wiring is soft, not hard. ''It is flexible, malleable and changeable.

The popular focus on innate intellectual differences between the sexes is, in part, a response to psychologists' emphasis of the environment's importance in the development of skills and personality in the 1970s and early 1980s. This led to a reaction against nurture as the principal factor in the development of human characteristics and to an exaggeration of the influence of genes and inherited abilities. This view is also popular because it propagates the status quo.

Between the two extremes – that either men and women are completely different or that all apparent differences are artificial constructs, some take a mid-way position. Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, has identified some talents that women express more regularly than men; aptitudes that stem, in part, from women's brain architecture and hormones. Interestingly, these are skills that leadership theorists now espouse as essential to leadership effectiveness.

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This article was first published on www.symmetra.com.au.



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About the Author

Kali Goldstone is an international human rights lawyer and journalist with a depth of expertise in managing diverse programs working with minority and vulnerable groups, refugees, IDPs and immigrants for the last 12 years in Australia, Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kenya and the U.S.

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