It’s hard not to think of phrenology — the debunked pseudo-science that measures your mental abilities from the shape of your skull — when reading the memo from (now former) Googler James Damore. In it, he credits major biological differences between men and women for much of the disparity between their career paths. His presentation is sound — the memo is thoughtful and well-written. But when it comes to the science, he’s extremely naïve.
In that, he has great company. I’ve been exploring the science — and pseudoscience — in this field since I was in grad school, and it is full of minefields. The research itself is often influenced by the biases of the society in which it is pursued. For example, in the early 1900s scientists found that women’s brains were smaller than men’s brains. Their obvious deduction — women are not as intelligent as men. Our beliefs about how men and women should be are so deep and fundamental to how we view the world that we design experiments and seek out data to confirm those beliefs. Worst of all, that bunk science influences what we expect from each gender, including how we manage them in the workplace.
The trick to finding the right science — and to great management — is to not let those gender biases blind you.
Take Alison Gopnick’s much better overview of this complex topic in The Wall Street Journal. She acknowledges the wide-spread finding that there are indeed differences between average male and female brains. Instead of using that to ascribe value, however, she identifies two fundamental problems with thinking about individual brains as “male” or “female.”
First, research shows that brains are not “male” or “female” the way bodies are. Brain differences follow a “mosaic” pattern, and each person’s brain is a combination of “male” and “female” structures. There doesn’t even seem to be much correlation — a brain can be extremely “male” in some structures and extremely “female” in others.
Second, research has demonstrated that brains, like behavior, are quickly affected by environmental conditions. For example, when we move animals from one environment to another, we find that the structures of their brains rapidly change, as does their behavior. Patterns that were more common in males may become female patterns and vice versa. So gender differences we see in one environment may be quite different in other environments.
Decades ago, a psychologist named Sandra Bem developed a theory of psychological androgyny. Her idea was that the most effective people combine “masculine” traits with “feminine” traits in all sort of ways. Brain research has now caught up with Bem, and it turns out she knew what she was talking about.
What does all this mean for talent management? It means we need to be very careful about assuming we can predict people’s work performance based on gender. While we don’t have data to support most assumptions about genders, we do have plenty of research that shows cultural biases have a powerful impact on how people perform in the workplace.
One way to eliminate those biases is simply to be aware of them. If you know your perception may be colored, you’re more likely to question your initial reactions. Another way is to be very skeptical when others make sweeping claims that men are one way and women are another — and that it’s just the way we’re wired. By the way, women are just as prone to making those kinds of generalizations about men as the reverse. We just have less power to enforce those false stereotypes in most workplaces.
On a macro level, new fields like People Analytics can make the hiring process more equitable by removing data that might trigger a bias.
If we want to hire, engage, promote, and retain the people who will provide greatest value for our businesses, It just makes sense to focus on creating an optimum environment for diversity and agility, rather than worrying about the sex of people’s brains.
If you need help understanding your own biases, or you want to learn more about how People Analytics can help, email me.