Are Women From Venus and Men From Mars?

The presence of women in top positions makes men take notice of social issues.

Posted Dec 21, 2019

For the first time, women are heading two European institutions. Ursula Von der Leyen has been the chair of the European Commission since December 1, while Christine Lagarde accepted the job of President of the European Central Bank a month earlier.

Both women champion social issues, such as climate and the representation of women in senior positions. Is their stance typically female? Do businesses and organizations take more notice of social issues if more women join their upper ranks? And if so, why?

Christine Lagarde seems to think the issue is linked to uniquely feminine qualities. She has declared more than once that if only Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the world would be a better place. The disastrous collapse of the bank at the beginning of the financial crisis would never have happened, because women in the main are more pragmatic, have a greater sense of responsibility, and exercise more self-restraint, or so Lagarde claims.

It would be tempting to assume that men and women have "innately" different qualities and goals. The saying that women are from Venus and men from Mars is trotted out often enough to make just that point. But is it backed up by science? 

A study of the annual reports of 143 Fortune 500-listed companies shows that social (non-financial) issues move up the corporate agenda when more women join the board. Another study, which compares data from some 4,500 organizations in 71 countries, found a link between the presence of women on the board and a more pro-active policy regarding sustainability and more transparency about this policy.

In interviews, board members confirm the longer-term perspective of their female colleagues, their tendency to place activities in a larger framework, and their assumption of social as well as financial responsibilities. However, researchers do not think this is simply down to "how men and women are," but rather to differences in upbringing and social roles.

It is undeniably true that men and women are different, but the differences are mainly physical. Only women can bear children, and men have greater upper body strength. Are those determinants for the priorities they set for themselves as leaders?

Research into the psychological differences and leadership behavior of men and women suggests something else is at work. Time after time, studies have shown that the ambitions and competencies of men and women do not differ significantly. Janet Shibley Hyde, who is professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the American University of Madison-Wisconsin, compared hundreds of such studies and found a big overlap between men and women: for instance, with regard to leadership style, ethical behavior, the importance they attach to success and prestige versus caring for others, and the ability to understand the feelings of others.

So what is going on? Many behavioral differences—including those between men and women—stem from the situations they find themselves in and the way they have been raised and directed by their environment. It starts at a very young age, with children being offered what are considered "girls’ toys" and "boys’ toys." 

In the workplace, too, men and women are supposed to adhere to "appropriate" patterns of behavior and will be given jobs and activities that fit that bill. Women are supposed to be empathic and social, while men are given to understand that their strength lies in competitive and result-oriented behavior. Social roles, experiences, and positions are the main drivers—and restrictors—of male and female behavior, not the fact that they happen to have been born male or female.

People (male and female) feel and act differently as a result of the expectations, goals, and rewards they are faced with. This even holds true for hormonal differences. In her book, Testosterone Rex, professor Cordelia Fine of Melbourne University, explains the mechanism. Both in men and women, the production of oxytocin (the love hormone) and testosterone (the aggression hormone) fluctuates depending on whether they are, for example, çaregivers or hold a position of power. Nor is it as straightforward as the terms "love hormone" and "aggression hormone" suggest. Oxytocin can lead to aggression, and testosterone can boost cooperation.    

It’s not the gender that determines what people find important about their leadership role and the style they adopt. Much can depend on the gender composition of the workforce. So what is the determining factor?

None of the studies conducted so far suggest that female board members are more involved in social issues because it "comes naturally" to them, as Lagarde claims. But having a mix of men and women in top positions can help to highlight a broader range of experiences and perspectives, so men, too, will adjust their goals and priorities.