Earlier this week, Jezebel reported on a questionable Ernst & Young training program in the U.S.
In addition to promoting tired gender stereotypes regarding corporate leadership, the program described women’s brains as pancakes that have trouble focusing, and men’s as waffles that are better information collection and processing.
We asked three Australian scientists to weigh in on this bizarre analogy.
For context, here is the full quote from the original Jezebel article.
“Attendees were even told that women’s brains are 6% to 11% smaller than men’s, Jane said. She wasn’t sure they were told this, nor is it clear from the presentation. Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus, the attendees were told. Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.”
Since we’re not neuroscientists or psychologists here at Gizmodo, we threw some questions at:
- Dr Cordelia Fine: author of Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, professor at the University of Melbourne
- Dr Laura Bradfield: Research Fellow at UTS’s Centre for Neuroscience & Regenerative Medicine
- Dr Jared Cooney Horvath: author of Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insights from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick, Educational Neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne
The idea of men’s brains being larger isn’t new – but is it true?
“Yes actually this is true. Because men have bigger bodies. Bigger bodies = bigger brains. Whales and elephants have bigger bodies than humans, but are they smarter? No.”
“It’s correct that, on average, men’s brains are larger. This has long been a point of fascination and speculation: among the Victorian public, it was referred to as ‘the missing five ounces of female brain.'”
Dr Cooney Horvath:
“So, all the research that shows that men have a ‘larger’ brain are studies with very few people – mostly white, western, college-aged.
For this reason, we don’t really hold much weight to this finding. It’s something that’s there, but that neuroscientists (by and large) do not take very seriously as we don’t really think it’ll hold up to scrutiny in the future.
Believe it or not, we have recently started work on the ‘Sex Similarity’ hypothesis. Outside of the genatalia, you’d assume the one organ to show significant differences between sexes would be the brain… but those differences simply aren’t there!
Ask 100 neuroscientists to look at an image of the brain, exactly ZERO would be able to tell you conclusively (or even confidently) if the brain comes from a male or a female.
So odd is this finding that many people have stopped looking for differences and, instead, are asking the question “Why are our brains so dang similar!?”
Does bigger actually mean anything from a learning and leadership perspective?
“The correlation between brain size and intelligence is very small, about 0.2 I think. To say that having a bigger brain means something in terms of learning and leadership is an enormous leap and generalises over a huge amount of nuance and detail. In short, the answer is no.
Taking the literature as a whole, there is very scant evidence that IQ differs between males and females. IQ tests are constructed to have a mean value of 100 and this is true for both sexes.
Another thing to note is that the differences between individuals are far larger than any sex differences. For instance, if you were to go and pick two males off the street and give them an IQ test along with an fMRI brain scan, you would likely find MUCH larger differences between these two individuals in both the test and their brain structure than any difference that supposedly exists between men and women.
Also I should probably make a note that correlation does not equal causation. So the presence of a very weak relationship doesn’t mean anything about whether having a bigger brain actually leads to higher intelligence.”
“Absolutely, this is why 80% of our CEOs are sperm whales…
No, there is no evidence that it is of any significance whatsoever. While there are small average differences in leadership style (that may be due at least in part to some styles being tolerated less in women), there is a great deal of overlap in how women and men lead, and overall women are at least as effective as men in leadership style.”
Dr Cooney Horvath:
“LOL – bigger doesn’t mean anything from ANY perspective. The sperm whale has a massive brain, but I don’t think that’s made them exponentially smarter, or better leaders.
Don’t get me wrong, whales are intelligent – but not in the way we would measure when trying to define the impact of a large brain.
In humans, a large brain is actually likely the symptom of a disorder or the sign that something is wrong. If your brain is super big, go see a doctor immediately.”
The waffle/pancake analogy is crass and offensive, but is there any underlying truth to men and women learning in different ways?
“This is a vastly more complex question than it would seem on the surface, and one very difficult to answer in a short soundbite. My answer would be, there’s probably there’s something to it, but you would have to have very careful separation in your research methods to determine whether men and women learn differently because of biology or because of society, i.e. nature versus nurture.”
“There is a popular idea that males and females have different ‘learning styles’, but the evidence doesn’t support this notion. There are modest average sex differences in brain connectivity, but these differences have never been causally linked to different ways of learning, or leadership ability, or any other facet of psychology.”
These connectivity differences may simply reflect the fact that it makes sense for smaller brains (whether belonging to a male or a female) to be wired in a slightly different way to larger brains (whether male or female).
Claims that male brains are like waffles, and therefore better able to focus, while female brains are like pancakes, are examples of what I have termed ‘popular neurosexism’ – neuroscientific claims or language that reinforce gender stereotypes in ways that are not scientifically justified.”
Dr Cooney Horvath:
“I’d love to answer this question… if I had any clue what this guy was blathering about. In truth, I can’t even begin to understand this metaphor.
It makes as much sense to say men’s brains are like a bagel and women’s are like a croissant.. which is to say, neither of those metaphors make sense.
I am oddly hungry now, though.”
What are some those differences?
“Not really sure. I can tell you that female rats and mice show very similar decision-making performance in my paradigms (or sometimes the females are better… but that could be my bias!”
Dr Cooney Horvath:
“Not many. You’ve got to remember that the brain is ADAPTIVE – it is constantly changing its structure and processing in order to account for changing environmental and mental demands.
As such, any gender differences we see are almost certainly not due to ‘in-born’ traits of the brain, but rather to social stories (constructed by societies over time) and personal preferences (as you think and do, so the brain changes).
Even though there is some evidence that men may outperform women when it comes to math, this effect disappears when women are told they ‘can’ succeed at math – it was a social story rather than a brain issue.
Similarly, even though there is some evidence women are more empathetic than men, this effect disappears when men are ‘allowed’ to empathise.
In the end, effective leadership style is context dependent and will necessarily be defined by the demands of and goals for the job – this is not a brain issue, this is a social issue.”
The program identified many characteristics as either masculine or feminine, with the implication that the masculine characteristics were better suited for leadership roles.
Is this BS from a neuroscience perspective even if that unconscious bias still clearly exists in some corporate environments?
“The real question from a neuroscience perspective is, I believe: do male and female brains differ in such a way that male brains are more ‘suited’ to leadership roles?
Again there is an extremely long answer to that question, but the short answer is no. We have to be careful as scientists that we do not allow our own biases to affect our studies of such questions.
For example, I would like to believe as a female neuroscientist that male and female brains are not that different, but there are studies showing that there are differences in male and female brains.
Further, males and females obviously differ with regards to hormones and these hormones are going to affect the brain. Once again however, differences between individuals within each sex are often larger than any differences observed between sexes.
Also, who are we to say that the differences that have been observed are better or worse for leadership roles? That really depends very much on society’s determination of what is important for leadership roles.
For instance, men may be seen as being more decisive (again I say that with a LOT of caveats) and women more communicative (again, caveats), so who’s to say which is better for leaders?
At the end of the day, we need to get to a place where, as a society, gender equality is such that we can truly judge these issues on a merit basis regarding who is best for the job. Of course we are not there yet – if we were, we would have gender equality with regards to the number of males and females in parliament, or as CEOs of companies.
Nevertheless, I am certain that the answer to the question “who is the best leader?” is NOT determined by the sex of the candidates.
“It’s long been recognised that a problem for women leaders is that schemas about good leadership overlap with stereotypical masculine traits, while at the same time women who express certain masculine traits run the risk of backlash. This problem for women leaders is sometimes referred to as the ‘tightrope of impression management’. That is, they have to be sufficiently ‘masculine’ to seem competent, but not so much that they seem dislikable or insufficiently ‘feminine’.
Here’s a great paper that explains the complexity of interpreting sex differences in the brain, Eight Things You Need to Know About Sex, Gender, Brains, and Behaviour by Gina Rippon and Daphna Joel.”
Dr Cooney Horvath:
“This is completely culturally driven and has no standing, or meaning, whatsoever within neuroscience. Believe it or not, what traits are effective within a leader changes country to country.
In the west, we tend to favor opportunism, individuality, and inspiration. In the east, they tend to favor consideration, consensus, and completion with minimal fan-fare.
Of course, these are gross generalisations, but it just goes to show trying to define ‘leadership’ through a biological lens is as silly as trying to define ‘beauty’ using neuroscience – beauty necessarily changes across cultures, time-periods, and contexts.
Leadership is not in the brain – it’s in the culture. You must deal with and describe it accordingly.”