O Magazine column
Men and women are like two feet; they can help each other get ahead. But the sexes have some different skills—among them, the way they think. Women, on average, collect more bits of data, assemble these facts into more complex patterns, and weigh more options as they make decisions. Women tend to see the “big picture;” they generalize and synthesize; they think in webs of factors not straight lines—what I call “web thinking.” Men get to the point. On average, they are more likely to focus on what they consider relevant, then ponder in a more linear progression, “step thinking.” Both thinking styles have merit. Both have been traced, respectively, to the hormones estrogen and testosterone. And both evolved millions of years ago as women did more multi-tasking to rear the young, while men spent more time focusing on one thing at a time—often hunting game.
Women’s web thinking gives them other natural talents—among them, their ability for long-term planning, and their intuition, mental flexibility and imagination. Women also have superb linguistic and social skills, deep empathy, and a knack for diplomacy and networking—more aptitudes linked with estrogen. And with these and other natural abilities, women are heading for a powerful role in society–forward to the past.
For millions of years ancestral women commuted to work, trekking through the open grass and woodland trees to gather fruits and vegetables, returning to camp with 60-80% of the evening meal. In deep history, the double income family was the rule; and women were just as economically, socially and sexually powerful as men. Women’s worldwide status began to suffer some 10,000 years ago as our forebears settled down and men’s roles as farmers became crucial. But after Word War I, the modern business economy emerged, one that no longer required the physical strength of men–and needed the intellectual skills of women as well as men.
Indeed, the booming health care, education, travel and service industries need women’s compassion, and verbal and social aptitudes. And the burgeoning news media, the law, and spreading not-for-profit companies need women’s broad perspective, long term view, imagination, and mental flexibility. So, not surprisingly, women in much of the world are slowly gaining economic power, as United Nations data on 130 societies has shown over several decades. Traditions and religious credos still hold women down. But as women enter the paid labor force in droves, they are returning to the life style they enjoyed a million years ago–equality with men.
Equality is power. But women may soon lead the way. When senior executives of several Fortune 500 companies were asked to describe women’s most outstanding contribution to business, they agreed, saying it was women’s “more varied, less conventional point of view.” (Worton 1996). With their web-thinking, women are built for leadership. And our modern business community needs the female mind.