Is leadership gendered?


I was worried when I was asked to speak at WomenEd last Saturday. I have never really been a leader (middle management in schools is just that – management, usually with no money and little influence – so that didn’t count).

I covered for an AHT once which largely involved bus duty, distributing ties and proof reading reports. But leadership, no, never. And nor had I ever (I thought), really aspired to be a leader.

Being a Head of Department put me off somewhat. Juggling data; dreading the flood of phone calls at 7am to tell you that members of your team were off sick; trying to cover three lessons at once; fielding parental complaints about the inconvenience of exam dates; managing detentions; passing on bad news in two directions like a signpost…none of it felt like leadership. And it was easy to decide to jump to becoming an AST. There I could do what I did best – teach. I could collaborate with colleagues in a “you might find this useful way” rather than “this is what I’ve been told I have to tell you” way. It was, I believed, a way of avoiding leadership.

So I felt like a proper fraud when I was asked to speak for an organisation that states as one of its key aims, to support women in leadership and those who aspire to be. But I said yes anyway and did what good girls do – my homework. And I reflected. I remembered the time when I did put the idea forward to my head that I might like to move into an SLT post and he laughed heartily and said “you’d hate it.” And that was that. And I think I might have, if the paradigm of leadership was what many perceive it to be. This is why I’m moving to the idea that we should be trying to avoid speaking of pejorative “male” and “female” leadership styles and models, and instead thinking about leadership differently.

One of the first things I did was to ask the question “are there really differences between the male and female brains?” And it turns out there are. Women have larger limbic systems, tend to have a larger corpus callosum and a larger hippocampus. The limbic brain deals largely with emotions and nurture; the hippocampus with memory and the corpus callosum links left and right hemispheres, making women work across both more fluidly. Their communication centres mature 6 years before boys’ do. Men on the other hand have a brain that is larger – roughly in line with the larger body size they have. Scientists don’t think this has any impact on their brain function, but they do have better developed spacial awareness, tend to use the left hemisphere more and their motor skills mature roughly 4 years earlier than girls’ do. Of course all of this is generalised – there will be many men with well developed corpus callosum (Einstein had a huge one apparently) and there are, of course, many women who are spacially aware. But it left me wondering whether these differences affect the way we experience and see the world and how that might impact on leadership.

Ian McGilchrist’s work on The Divided Brain is fascinating in this respect. He points to the debunking of many of the widely held beliefs about the functions of right/left hemispheres of the brain – largely that one dealt with logic and the other with creativity for example or that one was more male and the other more female and he is firm in his dismissal of such binaries. It is now known that brain processes are complex and take place across both hemispheres. Creativity, for example, as Anna Abraham and Paul Howard-Jones point out, takes place across both hemispheres – it demands switching between different kinds of thinking – analytical and generative. It taps into multi-sensory memory, drawing down knowledge, making connections, tapping into emotions. It’s not located in one part of the brain. But it does require an ability to switch between functions and to hold two views in place at once – the fixed and the fantasy; the in-fact and the intuition. It’s not so much what the hemispheres deal with, but perhaps how they affect our perception and view of the world. McGilchrist offers the example of a bird – with the left hemispheric part of it’s vision, it focuses on a seed in a bed of gravel and maintains that focus as it swoops to feed. But with the right it is searching – for threats, using intuition, experience and other senses to ensure its safety. This capacity to look hard and soft, in and out, is essential to survival and to creativity. It requires a good, strong corpus callosum and a fluidity between the hemispheres. Without this, we become too loaded on one side or the other.

Reading McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (and I’m only part of the way through) is a challenge – it’s a proper beast of a book. Some reviewers have said it will prove to be as pertinent to our understanding of the human brain as The Origin of Species was to understanding the development of life on our planet. Others have been less certain of its credibility. But one thing is certain – it blows your mind a little and it is rooted in decades of scholarly research. It’s not an opinion piece. McGilchrist posits the idea that we, as a society as a whole, have become too reliant on the perception managed by the left hemisphere – a perception that deals with certainty, proof, detail…but lacks the bigger picture view of the right. It lacks intuition, a consideration, for example, of unforeseen outcomes to decisions. It lacks the wider view. The left posits the “other” in a binary position, rather than in a partnership, leading us to tend towards polar opinions. Progressive v traditional, rational v emotional, individual v collective, right v wrong. Being left loaded can lead us to a narrow view of the world. And it can lead us to inflict harm while turning a blind eye. But to ignore the left is to ignore the importance of detail, of focus, of persistence. The fact is we need to hold both in mind.

What is leadership if not a skill set that requires the ability to resist binaries and shift along a continuum in which focus is balanced with intuition; in which fact mates with imagination; reason with emotion. In the way we shift along scales of formality in language is there not a scale of leadership in which we can hold both perspectives at the same time? Is it not better to think of scales of paradigm rather than fixed, gendered positions which result in men being accused of being ‘pussies’ if they empathise and women are somehow unnatural if they reason? What if this is not a gender related issue – many men reject the “left-loaded” model too – what if it is not that one is male or female, but that the model itself is simply unbalanced.

The traditional model of leadership (and I’m starting to think this has infused the entire education system from leadership to assessment to accountability to pedagogy) is one that parks emotion, or pretends to (neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out that all reason is infused with emotions – unless there is a cognitive impairment). Damasio suggests that all good decision making comes through our limbic brains, is somatically, as well as cognitively experienced, and ultimately depends on intuition as well as logic. Being “left-loaded” attempts to deny that reality – to deal in certainties and to reject complexity. Being “left-loaded” allows us to ignore the bigger picture – to make decisions that a wider lens would see as illogical and potentially harmful, while focusing on small facts and opinions that we believe to be “true”. It allows us to vote for Brexit on the basis of a single issue, or for Trump, or to throw our plastic bottles in the recycling bin with a clear conscience while ignoring the fact that we didn’t need to have bought the bottle. It allows us to blame teachers for the underachievement of the poorest of children while ignoring how our social policies have exacerbated their poverty. It allows us to prioritise the colour and shape of shoes over the mental health of the minds in our care. It allows us to march forward while simultaneously setting up roadblocks in our pathway.

Left loaded leadership is not male – it’s just unbalanced. Just as right loaded leadership would be. What we need is a system that allows us to be both. To see the inconsistencies in our system and find ways of putting them right. To accept that we and others make mistakes and to put them right. To manage egocentricity and our desires, by holding them in balance with those of others. To be male AND female, analytic and innovative, focused and nurturing, firm and fair. That’s the kind of leadership role I would have embraced and it’s a paradigm I think we should fight for. Male or female.

I’ll be writing much more about the implications of McGilchrist’s thesis as I go on, and particularly its implications for learning and education. But if you want a taster, here is a good start.

4 thoughts on “Is leadership gendered?

  1. What a fascinating post, but now you have gone and done it. I am going to have to read the texts you refer to.

    I tend to disagree about you traditional model of leadership. I studied (and continue to study) while I worked as a manager, studying the subject from a “management” perspective and I feel that like teaching (and most other topics) , the topic can be viewed from so many perspectives one can easily become disorientated. Maybe disorientation is just my experience thus far.

    I believe leadership is something most of us do much of the time. I believe that different approaches to leadership are required in different contexts i.e. it is contingent. I believe that you were leading in giving your talk at WomeEd and that you are also demonstrating leadership in publishing this post.

    I currently teach on the IB Diploma programme and there we have multiple ways of knowing including reason, intuition and faith.

    Much of your discussion here is where the two areas of reflection overlap.

    And now I am going to have to read the texts.

    1. Ha, thank you Brian – I’m still wading my way through the McGilchrist but it’s really fascinating – would be good (in chunks) for TOK I think.

  2. Perfect accompaniment for a lunch-break.
    I agree with Brian’s comment about contingent leadership but wonder if this sometimes might be disguised as intuition? if so, then such a default position could result in decision making which is ‘right’ or ‘left’ influenced. I think it would take some significant training/experience/ self-reflection that allows balanced leadership in all situations.
    I too am going to read the texts.

    1. Yes, I remember Ty Goddard talking about latticed leadership and this reminded me of that sense of connecting across rather than being top down. I think there are things here about lots of seeming binary’s – the “it’e lonely at the top” model ties into the individual v collective binary and so on. Anyway, it’s well worth reading! Takes a while though.

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