Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Male and female brains, complexity and objectification

Recently I was teaching a group of MSc students about chaos and complexity theories and how they might be relevant to leading organisations. One of the things that struck me is that working with complex self adaptive systems requires a focus on relationships between the parts of the system rather than on the component parts themselves. Of course, to a systemic therapist, this is nothing new, but the implications for leadership and management in our economy are huge.

Unfortunately, the dominant ways of thinking (especially in the West) are reductionist and lineal, and while this is fine for dealing with and managing simple systems or problems, relational, systemic thinking is required for dealing with the complex, non-lineal systems that would include nations, corporations, services (such as the NHS), hospitals, or even small and medium enterprises.

Simon Baron-Cohen (who is a Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University and researches on the autistic spectrum) notes that people with ‘male brains’ tend to be good at what he calls ‘systemising’, which he describes as the drive to analyse and explore and extract the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system as well as the drive to construct systems. I would argue that this is very much thinking about systems, rather than thinking systemically and being able to include self within a given system. This ‘male’ type of thinking is characterised by more focus on detail, components and parts, rather than relationships.

While the male brain tends towards logic, and the female brain towards empathy, neither are actually exclusive to each gender; in fact most of us are somewhere in the continuum between both extremes. Of course, manifestations of the extremes of either might range from ‘mindblindness’ and autism on the male side to ‘logicblindness’ and attributing mind, thoughts and feelings to inanimate objects, on the female side.

The male brain focus fits in very much with the reductionist, lineal thinking associated with science since Descartes, and though this type of thought is useful, is may be less helpful when thinking about and managing complex systems. Generally, women tend to be more relationally orientated and empathic, which suggests that leading and managing complex adaptive systems might be more suited to women than men. To get more women into roles where they can use their skills in dealing with complex, relational issues will require a massive shift, and the effort required to get more women into leadership roles at all levels of society is not just about equality – it is a necessity.

William Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist said “People divide roughly, it seems to me, into two kinds, or rather a continuum is stretched between two extremes. There are people people, and things people.” It would seem that women are more likely to be ‘people people’, and men are more likely to be ‘things people’.

These same differences in thinking might also go some way to understanding why men are more likely to ‘objectify’ women. If ‘male brainedness’ is less relational and more about things, or objects, perhaps for some men, women are simply that – objects. I was staggered by the lifelike ‘love dolls’ manufactured in Japan, which seems to me to be an extreme and literal form of the objectification of women by men.