Neuroscience and the Diversity Issue

The issue of fairness and equity is always important to society but the current debate about the number of women in boardrooms goes beyond that.  Essentially, it is an issue of board performance and effectiveness in the crucial role of decision making and governance.  Why? Good decision making depends on access to good information and the multiple ways of interpreting that information. The inherent bias that causes us all to filter and prioritise the information we get means that we can overlook something important or simply not get the value we need to get from the information we have.  This human tendency is behind the principle of having companies governed by a collective – the board – instead of one person, no matter how able that person is!

These differences result from differences in blood flow, brain structures and chemistry. People at the more female end of the brain structure spectrum will take more input via their five senses and store this material for later use than those at the male structure end.  Hence the female brain is more likely to remember detail of conversations and pick up moods and unspoken information, than the male structured brain.

The female structure will use more words than the male and see more colour and fine detail than the male structure perceives. The wiring of the more female end brains also links emotional activity with thoughts and words in the top of the brain so that emotional issues are quite literally top of mind. In contrast those at the male side of the spectrum may need many hours to process emotional laden experiences.

Scientifically speaking, people at the female end of the spectrum have more white matter in their brains whereas the male end has more grey matter ( see Gurian, M. & Annis, B. (2008), Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.). White matter is the connective tissue which connects brain centres in the neural network, allowing them to make connections between disparate bits of information more easily.Conversely, grey matter tends to localise brain activity into single brain centres, allowing focus on one thing at a time with greater success whilst filtering out other bits of information that are coming through the senses or just outside the sphere of focus.

Important to the role of a board, is that they must hold all of the pieces of the business; it must see how they connect and where they are going; what could undermine success; what is needed from people for performance; it must relate strategy to day to day operational needs and issues, and so on, in an increasingly complex environment.  The connective ability that comes with white matter seems to enable women to hold all of this complexity in a way which is often difficult for a lot of men and to see possible consequences and risk more readily.If we ask the question what type of thinking skills does a board need to be most effective, the answer we always get is both!

What do you think? At its simplest level it is being seen as a male/female thing and generally speaking that is ok. But remember that it is a spectrum, and both sexes can be at various positions within that spectrum, including a “bridge brain” that has components of both.  So ask some questions to test your director candidate’s thinking styles so you get a clearer picture about the board you are building.  Visit our Board Development section of the TWG website, to see what else might help you build a more effective team.