Today's New York Times’ "Room for Debate" forum asks Are Women Better Bosses than Men? Perhaps not unexpectedly, the responses are littered with stereotypes. According to Joanna Barsh, a McKinsey executive, "Women bring emotion to the workplace" and "are natural relationship-builders," while "men are risk-takers.”
Susan Pinker, a pop psychologist who writes for Canada's Globe, chimes in with selected physiological evidence:
Women are often better communicators because their brains are more networked for language. The majority of women are better at “mind-reading,” than most men; they can read the emotions written on people’s faces more quickly and easily, a talent jump-started by the vast swaths of neural real estate dedicated to processing emotions in the female brain.When discussing gender differences, this line of argumentation is common: Take what you think to be a social phenomenon and invent a biological or evolutionary backstory. It is by no means established that women are better communicators than men. And as a linguist, I can tell you that in no way are women’s brains more “networked” for language. Yet the author takes these precepts as a given. She goes on to cite a single study to substantiate her claim, even though the finding has been summarily discredited in the scientific community.
Arguments such as Pinker's are not scientific confirmation of gender difference; more often, they are simply a reflection of our prejudices. The fact that one has many exceptions to these gender stereotypes -- emotional men and strong women -- should give pause. These counterexamples show that these traits are not an immutable feature of “man” or “woman”-hood, but are in a large part socially ingrained. I am not saying that no gender differences exist (some, like muscle mass, are easily observable), but it's tough to tease apart which social behaviors are learned and those for which we have a biological predisposition.
More problematic, the same broad generalizations that some of the forum's columnists make are the very ones that make it difficult for women to rise up the ranks in fields like business. The perception that women are more emotional, less willing to take risks, and are better communicators "naturally" outfits them for certain jobs and disqualifies them for others. Who wants an emotional air traffic controller? Perhaps a better question than "are women better bosses than men?" is "are women different bosses than men and, if so, why?"