What can neuroscience teach HR?

Baroness Susan Greenfield

Tempted by a chance to hear eminent neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield speak, I found myself in Oxford on a beautiful spring-like day earlier this week.   The talk was arranged by St Hilda’s, Baroness Susan’s old college.  The headline for the event was “The Challenges of 21st Century Women” and I came along with Alex, my daughter, who is here doing a PhD in biophysics.  Baroness Susan was very much “at home” speaking about a topic close to her heart.   Given she was director of the Royal Institution until 2010 and is perhaps Britain’s most well-known neuroscientist, she centred her talk on the challenges women have as scientists.

A review of recent studies and key neuroscientific points showed clearly that women’s brains operate somewhat differently from men’s.   There is no evidence that this has a direct impact on our abilities to perform at work as academics or as leaders.   Currently however there are significant and worrying cultural and prejudicial judgements being made.   Research published in 2012 in PNAS found that despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science (C.A.Moss-Racusin, J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, M.J. Graham, J. Handelsman ) gender judgements that were made both by men and women alike.  Academic careers in some sciences these days start with 50:50 gender split but the women virtually disappear as you approach the level of Professorship.  Just this month Zaha Hadid was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that whilst the number of architecture students is split 50:50 male: female, only just over 20% of qualified architects are women.  UK leaders are still most likely to be white, male and middle-aged.  Research demonstrates that communication styles differ if you compare men with women – in terms of eye contact, nodding, arguing points, speaking for status as against collaboration amongst other elements.  These points are supported by Talent Innovations analysis of gender differences in our 360 degree feedback data Gender differences in 360 degree feedback and also McKinsey’s excellent research “Women Matter” .

Baroness Susan’s view is that we need to tackle this complex problem from every angle.  My view is that we need to bring consciousness to the prejudice that is held deeply within us all from a long-held cultural position and past.  We need to start believing in ourselves and our power to lead – our way. We need to support each other and to find inspiring mentors who will believe in us, even more than we do so ourselves.  We need to collaborate and take a stand for the feminine approach and to find men who are willing to partner us in this quest.

Baroness Susan agreed with me that we cannot win the current “game” of society, academia and business.  My view is that we need to play our game, our way and strategically and unwaveringly play to change the game at the same time, globally.  I was sharing this view rather passionately with my daughter afterwards when she asked if this was why I had chosen her gender-ambiguous name Alex.  I confessed that it was – I wanted her to be able to choose. So, here’s the dilemma…when she completes her CV to apply for her first job in her chosen science career- should she be Alexandra or Alex? I am rather relieved that decision will be hers!…..But what does this say to HR teams working in architecture or science based organisations?  How are we to support women in to leadership in these careers?  Or is it already happening?

Elva Ainsworth


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