Does gender really matter?

Relatively few women manage to clamber their way to the top in the corporate world -- only 21 of the Fortune 500 and four of the FTSE 100 has a female CEO -- and in other traditionally male-dominated institutions.

Yet in 2014, both General Motors (GM) and the Federal Reserve will be run by a woman. You’d have to be obtuse not to see a growth in power, if not numbers. Progress may be glacially slow, but the presence of women in such iconic institutions reinforces that message that women can do anything if they are given a chance.

Which doesn’t mean that the old stereotypes have slunk away to die. Recent research out of the University of Pennsylvania on gender-based differences in the human brain received an extraordinary amount of media coverage. The Economist's coverage of the story jumped to such conclusions as "men have better motor... abilities" and "are better coordinated than women" -- evidence, if we needed it, that feeding stereotypes is always great business even if it isn't good thinking.

 Much was also made of the fact that neurons in men’s brains appear to be connected differently from neurons in women’s brains. All the old gender stereotypes were marched out again: Men have great spatial skills, women are great at remembering names and faces.

There are important lessons to be drawn from the outsize attention garnered by this unremarkable piece of research.

First, it is virtually impossible to find a "typical" brain. Much of our neural networks is determined by life experiences. And since everyone’s are different, you won’t be surprised to discover that brains vary enormously. If you are jumping from brain wiring to behavior (which, let’s face it, is an acrobatic leap but what everyone really cares about) you need to consider hundreds of hormones, together with cultural factors and context. This makes generalizations meaningless.

Second, even in the Pennsylvania study, there were big differences according to age. This merely adds to data that shows that time influences the connections and patterns in our brains. Hence – and again – the pointlessness of crude generalities.

Third, as fashionable as neuroscience is – with its accompanying hybrids like neuroleadership, neuroeconomics and neuromarketing – the truth remains that we know very little about how we think. We still don’t know how brain activity relates to thinking, to mind, behavior or identity. A few brain scans of neurological activity make great slides and pretty pictures, but we still have little insight into what they actually mean.

Stereotypes are still with us and will continue to attract any supporting flotsam and jetsam the tide brings in. This damages men and women alike. Just as there are many highly capable women whose leadership opportunities are diminished or overlooked because men still wonder if they’ll turn up when their kids are sick, there are also many capable men whose outstanding capacity to connect, communicate and share is under-valued and trivialized.

In the 10 years since I’ve been writing about business and gender, I have received at least as much correspondence from men complaining about the strait jacket of machismo as I have from women complaining about the glass ceiling. Stereotypes damage us all.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.