“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” Well that's what the book was trying to tell us anyway — 50 million copies and 30 language versions later, men and women around the world is still nodding knowingly at John Gray's words of wisdom. Probably one of the most repeated scenarios from the book is that men tend to jump into solution mode when a problem is brought up in conversation, whereas the women just want to talk about the problem with an empathetic listener. Ah yes, we've all been there.

So why, given the pop culture status of central metaphor of this book, is it so difficult to transfer this awareness from our private spheres into the workplace? It can't be that men are women are only different in their private lives right? Or has the invasive, and in my opinion damaging, gender-blind culture (cultures where we refute any differences between genders) gone so far as to make it impossible, or even dangerous, for us to see or articulate any differences between the sexes in the workplace?

Well, thank goodness for Barbara Annis.

Barbara Annis is an expert on gender intelligence and author of a number of books including: “Same Words, Different Language”; “Leadership and the Sexes” and “Work with Me: The 8 Blind Spots between Men and Women in Business” (co-written, accidentally, with John Gray). Barbara, who's based in New York, has been working for years with organizations and their leaders on gender intelligence, the minefield of gender relationships in the workplace and the fundamental underlier, which is the science of male and female brain differences. Barbara and I serve together on the Harvard KSG Women's Leadership Board.

Through looking at the brains of men and women, Barbara suggests that our gender is hard-wired and can be understood scientifcally. At the same time she is quick to point out that gender and gender roles are not the same thing. So here we delve into that Nurture v Nature debate (my father, a doctor who relishes the DNA discourse, would love this). The real beauty with this approach is that it provides us with a language to articulate why men and women behave and react differently in various situations — a language that we have not been able to access in the past to describe our experiences.

Below are scanned images of a female and a male brain at rest. This one was a huge aha moment for me. I always knew that my brain was going tick, tock, tick, tock all the time, while my husband’s brain has long gone into neutral. Does this means he rests better; does it mean that I am processing more information?

The term male brain and female brain do not mean one brain for each gender; the gender/brain spectrum is quite diverse and includes bridge brains. To find out where you sit on the gender/brain spectrum go to the BBC's "What sex is your brain?" test www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/add_user.shtml.

Below are some examples that I found interesting and which exemplify brain differences between male and female brains that impact our work and private lives:

1. Differences in neural blood flow patterns result in spatial-mechanical and verbal-emotive differences. In the female brain, more neural activity occurs in the parts that think in and create words and in the parts that connect those words to memories, emotions and sensory cues; in the male brain, more neural activity occurs in the parts that use physical and kinesthetic intelligence, as well as spatial mechanics and abstraction.

2. Grey/white brain matter. Men have 6.5 times more grey matter related to cognition and intelligence than women. Women have 10 times more white matter related to cognition and intelligence than men. In all our brains, gray matter processes information locally in the brain, whereas white matter networks and connects information between different information processing center in the brain. The gray/white difference is one reason men tend to be better at tasks requiring more local grey matter processing, ie focus on facts or on one task only. Women integrate and assimilate information from distributed white matter regions in the brain, as required for language skills and multi-tasking.

3. Different blood flow to cingulate gyrus which effect experience processing. Women, in general have a more active cingulate gyrus than men. This makes women often more contextual and constantly reassessing.

4. The male amygdala is larger than the female. This may contribute to men expressing anger physically and the male brain is not specifically dealing with words in these moments. While anger is verbally stimulating the female brain. Her need to express her angry words would be best done another time because he can't "hear" her words as she intends.

5. Difference in brain chemistry affects leadership. Men secrete more testosterone and vasopressin (aggression and territorial chemicals) while females secrete more estrogen, serotonin and oxytin (calming and bonding chemicals). But did you now that men's chemical secretion peaks in the morning then surges again between 900 and 1100 and is quite a bit lower between 3-5pm before going back up just to diminish again at around 8pm.

The list goes on, but this is food for thought and food for creating a better workplace and working relationships between the gender, and with some luck will also spill into our private lives and benefit everyone.

Nia Joynson-Romanzina is Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd. She is also a member of Catalyst's European Board and represents Swiss Re in the Harvard Kennedy School's Women Leadership Board. 

To see Nia's blogs, click here

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This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News' Women in Insurance Leadership program. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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