Vancouver Panelist Dr. Natalie Rasgon on “Leadership: Brain Research or Bias?”

Natalie Rasgon, MD, PhD

Dr. Natalie Rasgon, Professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics & Gynecology at Stanford University, will be featured on the “Leadership: Brain Research or Bias?” panel at the upcoming May 1 Corporate State Vancouver summit. Below is an article she’s been kind enough to share with us and which will be featured in The Vancouver Sun in advance of the summit:

 …the day will come when men will recognize woman as a peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of nations. Then and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship…”    Susan B. Anthony

Despite all the progress in the social structure and the increasing importance of female leadership, obstacles to parity in leadership at the highest levels of corporate America persist. With women comprising more than 50 % of the work force, alarmingly low numbers are at the commanding ranks in almost all spheres of society, i.e. government, business, law or academia.

Research findings to-date suggest that at the middle and senior levels of management, there are complex, and at a times controversial, interactions between gender roles and gender stereotypes in executive behaviors. To make matters even more complicated, the gender differences in perception of the leadership styles of behavior vary widely depending on the type of cohort observed, as well as the gender of the observer.

Social rank theories have considered the typical behavioral manifestations of two power styles. High rankers are characterized by power with ample access to resources and high levels of confidence while low rankers exhibit submissive withdrawal, ultimately signaling to the dominant others  “no threat” as a serious competitor for resources or control. Such subordinate and defeated states are manifested by various physiological changes and can ultimately lead to a disease state (for example, effects of tress on the cardiovascular system, or the brain). Perhaps the most robust difference between male and female managers is competitiveness. Even the most senior-level female managers see themselves as decidedly less competitive than their male counterparts perceive themselves.  At the same time, there are surprising numbers of similarities, and even role reversals, reported in various studies. However, all the research conducted on the topic has been descriptive of behaviors and few psychoanalytic/psychosocial theories have been applied to explain the gender differences among leaders.

Women’s leadership styles are firmly based on social perceptions afforded by their own self perceptions as well as perceptions by others. Consequently, they often fall victim to self-defeating behaviors  that can undercut their careers by either assuming a strident command-and-control approach or else turn passive — by clamming up, being indirect, failing to ask for what they want or need, and accepting junior-level tasks and responsibilities, rather than delegating them. Despite very subtle differences in behavior, women must still deal with a well-entrenched double standard when it comes to gender-acceptable behavior.  Cognitive, as well as emotional dissonance, in the leadership styles and their social perceptions are often colored by perceived attractiveness, likeability, and at times, competence is judged along the gender lines rather than based on facts. For example, women who are perceived as attractive or nice are rendered as “weak” or less competent than less attractive women. Such perceptions can be inferred by both men and women, but assumptions do not exist for men.

Despite considerable progress to reverse such perceptions, much remains to be done. The last presidential campaign with “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” made by Hillary Clinton showed America the urgent need for non-glacial changes in the system in order to ensure parity between genders. Whereas a substantial amount of research into social and psychological causes of this inequality is being done, there is a dearth of biological data. This is even more surprising as presently the biomedical sciences delve deeper into genetic and molecular foundations of sex and gender differences in human models. The tendency to explain lack of parity in leadership by the differences in brain structure and function between genders has been highly politicized in the recent years, and is not supported by research data.

Stanford Center for Neuroscience for Women’s Health is conducting a research project examining a biological approach to the investigation of gender-differences in leadership styles and opportunities. Such an approach may aid in fundamental organizational change by providing objective evidence for the gender-specific biomarkers of brain function which may underlie above-mentioned behaviors. It may also help in the removal of a “glass ceiling” and contribute to the elimination of “female mystique.”

Categories: Leadership, Leadership Style, Perception


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  1. Leadership Bias May Have Nothing to Do With Gender | Bedlam Productions Inc. - May 15, 2012

    […] Vancouver Summit’s panel on “Leadership: Brain Research or Bias?” took center stage, so did Dr. Natalie Rasgon, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Stanford University. According to Dr. Rasgon, the […]

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