Men on the job must feel besieged. Two seismic shifts are underway that are irrevocably changing the ways in which we've believed work works.
On the one hand, new technologies have enabled neuroscience to discover that men and women tend to be wired differently in ways that incline men — can it be? — to behave more emotionally and irrationally in certain work situations, exploding the myth that women are the only emotional creatures in the workplace. Recent research, like that led by Cambridge University neuroscientist John Coates, suggests that surges in male financial traders' testosterone produce states of euphoria that cause them to understate risk, thus contributing to the overleveraged global financial crash. Since men naturally produce ten times as much testosterone as women, it's being suggested that a more gender-balanced financial workforce could be stabilizing for firms and for the system as a whole.
On the other hand, the metrics of 21st century female professional and economic empowerment have become a tide. As of the last two years, more American workers are female than male, and the postindustrial occupations in which women predominate — health and education, among others — are the growth sectors. Women today account for 57% of college undergraduates, 62% of graduate students, and majorities of those graduating from medical and law schools. Despite the continuing rarity of women at the very tops of large corporations (which will inexorably shift as the cohort of overwhelmingly male CEOs retires during the next decade) and in finance, a 2004 study by the women's group Catalyst, The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity, concluded that companies with the highest percentages of women in their executive ranks achieved 35% higher returns on average. What's more, according to the Center for Women's Business Research, women today own 40% of the private businesses in the United States and a study released last year found that (the relatively few) high-tech start-ups led by women fail less frequently than those led by men. After 40 years of feminist-era dues paying, women's moment has come. Hear us roar.
As a woman who came of age in the late 1970s and who has worked in sometimes unproductively male-dominated workplaces, I'm with the program so far. Two-income families are the new normal. Economic parity for women is a good thing. But I don't think we should rush into simplistically thinking that a female-dominated workplace will change everything and overnight make the world perfect. The bigger opportunity, and indeed an essential rethink if we are to reboot our economy, is finally to move beyond circa-1970s gender-centric ideology into a larger, more constructive conversation about how to reinvent workplace norms.
We humans, women and men alike, are hobbled by a gigantic evolutionary time lag. We have no clue how to handle 21st century cognitive threats, real life in the modern workplace. We evolved, survived, through our ability to respond to physical threat — is that a snake on the trail or a stick? Our bodies' stress hormones, adrenaline, cortisol and testosterone, among others, which raise blood pressure and send more blood to our muscles, historically made us more alert in preparation to fight or flee imminent physical threats. Whether I'm fleeing a charging lion or cowering before a screaming boss, the amygdala responds, on a basic level, in a very similar way. Deep inside we are all irredeemably super-old-school. But the reality is that emotion is far more complicated in a modern work setting than it was for our prehistoric ancestors on the savanna. Is the person in the next cubicle gunning for my job? How will I get my work done when the babysitter calls in sick? And this disconnect — this evolutionary delay in the development of more emotionally nuanced or sophisticated responses to psychological challenges — is a huge contributor to what makes navigating modern work/life so incredibly hard.
In a 2008 paper on gender differences, five psychologists — Kateri McRae and James Gross of Stanford, Kevin Ochsner of Columbia, Iris Mauss of the University of Denver, and John Gabrieli of MIT — reported that while men and women don't really differ in their basic "reactivity" to emotional provocation, they are quite different in the ways in which they respond. Based on both subsequent questioning and neural responses to aversive photos as measured by fMRI brain scans, the authors discovered no significant differences between the genders in the speed of their reactions to stimuli. But there are gender-based distinctions in how men and women were able to regulate and manage their emotional response to these stimuli. The amygdala was less activated in men's brains than in women's, and portions of the women's prefrontal cortex, the cognitive control center, were more active than those of the men. The relatively new science of emotion is beginning to pinpoint precisely the neurochemical differences between the ways women and men tend to approach and deal with emotion, and it is important neither to let PC feminist ideology or neo-Victorian "Ooh, ick" squeamishness blind us to the findings. A too-reductive men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus perspective serves no one.
Rather than stigmatize the characteristic emotional biologies of one gender or the other, it should be the goal of any person or organization to allow all emotion at work, in all of its gendered nuances, its full due. Understanding the truths that neuroscience is revealing will allow us greater awareness and thus control of the emotions that shape our decisions and behavior at work. Learning and paying attention to the emotions that motivate and/or hobble us and in what measure — anger, anxiety, fear, joy — can help us learn to manage and use those emotions more effectively. I'd like to think that today, with U.S. women irrevocably at work and the economy in such dire straits, that we can safely raise all kinds of questions without endangering progress. When it comes to emotions and work, we should start being more unflinchingly analytical and empirical than ever before. As science discovers, confirms, and refines new understandings of gender-based aspects of emotion, let's try not to react to them too emotionally.