Last week I attended a very interesting author's talk given by Rosalind Barnett, a senior researcher at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, co-author (with journalist Caryl Rivers) of a new book, The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (http://thetruthaboutgirlsandboys.com).
As someone who regularly works with clients on issues of leadership communications, it was heartening to hear Dr. Barnett's conclusions. Her book explores solid science by respected reasearchers. It points to larger variations in natural skills and abilities within each gender group than between them. Boys are no more naturally inclined, as a group, to actively take charge and become leader than girls are (which is pretty obvious to anyone who has observed a group of preschoolers!) The pseudo-science that posits men and women are from different planets, or have evolved as quasi-separate species, has long rankled me. And yet this "conventional wisdom" persists! As the mother of a daughter and a son, I have observed that such understanding can do great damage to our children growing up, as they are pushed into socially acceptable roles by well-meaning teachers, parents, neighbors. Little girls are told to "sit still and be quiet," and work on fine motor skills. Boys are urged to run around, play with toys that move, and never, ever touch dolls. Dr. Barnett told us that girls have as much testosterone - sometime more - than boys, until puberty, so why should they have a "built-in" inclination from the start to be demure? To be more empathetic, more "relational" - all those things we are told come "naturally" to females? And Dr. Barnett reminds us that the brain is incredibly plastic, so that the concept of being "hard-wired" for certain behaviors is also so much "received wisdom" that doesn't stand up to science.
I could go on about this subject - indeed, ask friends and family, who will tell you I have! But, even when people are socialized over time to adhere to these strict gender roles and internalize them, science says they are not inevitable or immutable. So I say, we should strive to be ourselves, to be our best selves, and not be derailed by the noise of what we "should" be. Especially if we want to realize our full potential as leaders, we frst need to clear out that clutter to see who we are.
It takes lots of energy to fight against this and many other, falsely-perceived "truths" that shape how we function day to day. As Virginia Woolf wrote in August, 1940, "Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. That current flows fast and furious. It issues in a spate of word from the loudspeakers and the politicians. . . . it is our business to puncture gas-bags and discover seeds of truth." I plan to keep looking for those seeds.