Collaborative Gender Issues

I felt like I was at sea and hit by a 33-degree wave, as I listened to a group of women classmates group say, “Women are socialized to value relationships,” during the first day in Organizational Behavior in my MBA program.

It was as though all my past sins came back to haunt me.  I never heard any of their other points as I relived episodes where nurses asked, “Dr. Cohn, can we talk about what happened in the Operating Room yesterday?”  I thought that I was concerned about patient safety when I blew up over an incident, but never realized till that day in Organizational Behavior that nurses may have felt that I was devaluing our relationship.

I was delighted to learn in Leadership and the Sexes by Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis that biological differences may underlie some male-female communication differences:

  • Women tend to have more white matter in their brains, which connects brain centers in the neural network; men tend to have more gray matter, which tends to localize brain activity into a single active brain center
  • Women tend to have more P ganglion retinal cells, which see color and fine detail; men tend to have more M ganglion retinal cells, which recognize physical motion
  • The amygdala is a group of neural cells in the temporal lobe of the brain that helps process emotional reactions; the male amygdala tends to swell during anger and stimulate activity into the brainstem and hence physical activity; the female amygdala, which is smaller than in males, tends to stimulate activity into the cerebral cortical talking centers and hence dialogue
  • During stress, males tend to secrete more testosterone, which is associated with assertiveness, aggression, and risk-taking; in contrast, women tend to secrete more oxytocin during stress, which is associated with bonding, keeping tension levels down, and making sure that social connections are secure

The authors wrote that men’s and women’s needs are interdependent. In conflict,  women need verbal encouragement; they equate emotional validation with respect.  In contrast, men are solution-oriented and view dialogue as appropriate only to the extent that it uncovers practical strategies.  The response, “Let’s take note of what strategies you have tried and make a list of alternatives that you can implement right away,” may be calming and allow men to focus on what needs to be done. 

I agree with the authors’ comment, “To mentor and be mentored is a part of the human DNA.”  As I wrote in Collaborative Co-mentoring, a surgeon exclaimed, “We’re not stupid- we just need to be trained!” Some of our need for formal training in communication skills arises from the void in residency, where we emulate clinical mentors who have experienced no formal training in communication skills. I mentioned in Nursing Collaboration that all ten surgical nurses whom I polled on what should be the aims of a residency program in surgery (all of whom were women) cited the development of communication skills.

What do you think?  Do you agree with the authors that:

  • Authentic leadership requires taking responsibility for our actions
  • We cannot control others, but can only control ourselves

Could biologic differences be associated with physician-administrator communication differences?

 As always, I welcome your input to improve healthcare collaboration.

Kenneth H. Cohn
© 2008, all rights reserved

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2 Responses to Collaborative Gender Issues

  1. kirsti December 29, 2008 at 12:38 am #

    I think they could be…..and it is easy to take the biological route, but as you have pointed out in other posts, there are also issues of hierarchy, power, position, expertise, age, class etc which come into the mix so I think it is important to look at the intersections of these dimensions of our identities when we collaborate with others.


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