“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” – Oprah Winfrey
The female brain is wired for leadership, making complex decisions, empathy, and collaboration.
Nature’s default is female — we all start with an X chromosome.
If you are the lucky recipient of another X chromosome (thus making you female), you will continue to develop neurons with the Jedi-like ability to read faces, communication, and language.
If you receive a Y chromosome (making you male), testosterone will shunt this process, instead focussing on growing areas in the brain for aggression and sexual drive.
The female brain, as you will see from some key gender dimorphisms I discuss here, is designed to be in positions of power.
Of course, this is NOT to say men should not be in positions of power.
But when you look at the beautiful nuances in the female brain, and how she is uniquely qualified to lead with compassion, grace, and arguably a better executive decision maker, it begs the question…
Why are more women NOT in positions of power?
1. The SheEO: aka the Prefrontal Cortex
“It would be futile to attempt to fit women into a masculine pattern of attitudes, skills and abilities and disastrous to force them to suppress their specifically female characteristics and abilities by keeping up the pretense that there are no differences between the sexes.” – Arianna Huffington
The prefrontal cortex is involved in cognition, and decision making.
The prefrontal cortex is the queen mother and is responsible for planning the future, personality, expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior.
It is the executive function, the CEO, nay, the SheEO, of the brain.
The prefrontal cortex is larger and matures faster in women than in men.
Developmentally, the prefrontal cortex is larger and develops faster in females.
Why is this?
One of the prevalent theories is the influence of estrogen, the predominant hormone in the female brain, which strongly stimulates the faster development and maintenance of the female prefrontal cortex.
In her book, The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine, points out that this gender difference start before birth: female brains are “marinated” in utero with estrogen hormones, while male brains with testosterone.
If you are a woman you can relate to this – we often see females, both in their school years and in the work place, taking the initiative to complete tasks and assignments ahead of deadlines.
The frontal lobe, in particular the right prefrontal cortex, is involved with thinking about the future. Getting the project done ahead of schedule is a higher order, future-paced activity.
When I first learned this, it was an a-ha moment for me.
I would do this constantly –do my work early and have loads of extra time to overstudy for exams.
If a project was due in a month, I would get on it straight away, have boat loads of time to look it over, and 10 times out of 10 hand it in early.
Another reason to explain this behavioural difference (early keener vs last minute) that may co-exist with a larger prefrontal cortex may have something to do with the differences in our serotonin receptors.
I have written previously on the decreased serotonin receptors in females compared to their male counterparts.
We naturally have less dopamine to motivate us for follow through on a tight deadline.
I talked about men being more dopaminergic than women.
Meaning, they are less reliant on their environment, and can stay motivated and engaged in a task longer to finish it to completion.
Getting the task done ahead of time alleviates any stress response the female might have about the pressure of the deadline.
We see the opposite behaviour in men. Men will often wait until the last minute so that they utilize neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinepherine to push them to finish.
2. Temper Tantrum Center: Smaller Amygdala
“Don’t ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn’t.” – Michelle Obama
One of the main roles of the higher brain centers like the frontal lobe is to inhibit lower areas of the brain, in particular, the temporal lobe, where the amygdala lives.
The amygdala is involved in emotions, aggression, and anger. This is often referred to as our primitive, instinctual brain.
The amygdala, located in the temporal lobe is larger in men.
Neuroscientists have confirmed there are a greater number of testosterone receptors and other look alikes (collectively called androgens) present in the amygdala.
This is where the female brain is beautifully nuanced for leadership.
Being able to keep her cool, and continue to problem solve…that’s the making of a world leader.
3. Better Impulse Control : The Anterior Cingulate Cortex
“Mature workers are less impulsive, less reactive, more creative, and more centered” – Deepak Chopra
Women have a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in impulse control, decision making, guiding behavioural outcomes, and even choosing sexual partners (study alert: females tend to choose the less risky, more stable partners).
Neuroscientists have long reported the increased prevalence of ADHD, impulsivity, violence and aggression occurring much more frequently in males than females.
This may be in part to the anatomically smaller anterior cingulate cortex in males, versus females.
Again, in the context of leadership, this is an advantage of the female brain.
In high pressure situations, appropriating impulsive thoughts and emotions, while still being able to think about the best solutions is important.
Interestingly, the original function of the anterior cinguate cortex was thought to be in the protection of our young – to reduce risk so that we could ensure their survival.
What this often translates to in an adult women is conservative over risky behaviour.
4. The Way We Connect :The Corpus Callosum
“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” — Dolly Parton
Herein lies the one of the more prominent differences between us.
The male brain has more neurons than the female, BUT less connections between those neurons.
This is what neuroscientists call an intrahemispheric brain.
In other words, he tends to be more single focused, task-oriented, and mechanistic.
He tends to stay more in his left brain.
The male is able to raise his own levels of dopamine, going about his business, with less of a reliance on his external environment.
Males are typically systematizers.
The female brain has less neurons overall than her male counterparts BUT has more connections between them.
She tends to stay more in her right brain, being able to empathize and connect with others and create community.
Females are typically empathizers.
Women have what neuroscientists call an interhemispheric brain. Meaning, the female is more efficient with her neuronal connections, and uses more areas of her brain across the cortices.
She does this through connection of the superhighway in the brain called the corpus callosum. This allows her, with speed and accuracy, to engage more parts of her brain.
5. A Women’s Intuition Is An Actual Place In The Brain: The Insula
“To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her, man could not be. If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with woman. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?” – Mahatma Gandhi
The insula is intimately involved in empathy, emotional awareness, and the interface where the interpretation of “gut feelings” take place.
Whenever you meet someone, or to use the expression – “go with your gut” – it is the insula where the signals from the microbiota, or “gut feelings”, are processed.
The insula is larger and more active in females.
Again, this is mainly because the female brain is under the strong influence of estrogen.
This allows the female, with stealth-like accuracy, to develop better facial recognition, better communication skills, and expression of emotion.
Coupled with a larger insula, she is better able to process her environment, the emotions and psychological states of others, and read between the lines.
6. The Elephant Memory: Hippocampus
“A good memory is one of the most precious assets of the spiritual living” – Max Anders
Ever been in an argument with a woman, let’s say about what was said in a past conversation, and she can recall every single detail of what was said, how it was said, what the temperature outside was, how many birds were chirping, what the colour of her nails were, and what you were wearing?
That’s because her hippocampus, the area of the brain where memories are formed, is larger and more active than in the male.
What is cool about the hippocampus is it is estrogen sensitive (specifically estradiol), and as such, has regulatory effects on her learning and memory.
The hippocampus can also act by retrieving memories, and relays these memories to the auditory cortex, which will translate the memories into words.
Oh, I should also mention the auditory cortex, where learning, hearing and language centers are located, are 11% larger in females, too.
So Why Is The Future Female?
In Dr. Daniel Amen’s book “Unleash the Power of the Female Brain”, he suggests women are neurologically wired for success.
Through his research Dr. Amen has identified five particular strengths of women that play a key role in leadership:
- Self Control
- Appropriate Worry
We do this through the unique ways we, as women, are different.
Through our prefrontal cortex, we easily and effortlessly plan ahead, strongly inhibit anger and aggression, learn new information, and develop executive communication styles.
Women will also use their strong language skills to develop consensus and collaboration among peers (particularly other females) more efficiently than men, and our language will lend to being able to navigate through sensitive negotiations.
We have more interconnectedness and communication across the Corpus Callosum, meaning we are more efficient and use more areas of our brain for tasks.
We have superior impulse control, and better inhibition of aggression centers in the brain, while still able to solve difficult problems.
We have a better sense of we and others feel, through our larger and more active insula, which is the area our gut feelings are processed.
Now all this to say, this is NOT to say men are not qualified to be in positions in leadership.
Of course they are.
It is quite different statement to say “men are not qualified” versus “females are uniquely qualified”.
The female brain, is uniquely gifted, given her gender dimorphisms, to lead with empathy, intuition, instilling collaboration, and self control.
This all lends to the suggestion that women are wired to be professionals, and hold positions of power.
It is a neurological explanation for why we need more women, with their unique neurological differences in positions of power.
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