With Our Powers Combined: Collaboration, The Third Superpower

On the train this morning on the way into the office there was a female conductor. I’ve travelled with a female conductor driving the train once before, and both times ended the same way. On the intercom as we reached our destination, the conductor concluded her comments with, “have a great day everyone, and thank you crew for your work.” The only two times the conductor thanked the crew in the past two months were the two times the conductor was female – and they were different females.

This week’s female superpower follows from empathy, which we covered last week. What we are talking about this week is collaboration, which is a natural consequence of understanding and feeling the feelings of other people.

A 2011 Harvard Business Review article reported a study that tested the intelligence of groups working together in areas of brainstorming, decision making, and problem solving. Individual IQ scores were also tested, but as it turned out, they did not have an effect on the overall ratings of the groups’ intelligence. Even though a person might have had a higher IQ, his or her ultimate performance on the group assessment depended on if there were more men or women in the group. The more women in the group, the higher the group’s score.

Cohen, sited in the last article, theorized that men and women work differently in groups. Men search for underlying rules that govern how a system behaves, and then try to predict certain outcomes. Women, using their strength of empathy, attempt to identify what others are thinking and feeling, and therefore respond appropriately. They are more concerned with the emotional cohesion in the group and therefore pick up on more information contained in the other members of the group. Men are prone to be less aware of the others in the group as they are more focused on the problem solving aspect.

This distinction is not to say that men don’t care about the feelings of others. Women simply have more brainpower devoted to perceiving what others are thinking and feeling. Therefore, they have more brainpower available to accommodate the needs of members in a group. This greater capacity leads to greater group cohesion, helping a group to reach its goals more efficiently.

Sociologists have known this for years, long before it was possible to look into the brain. Behavioral differences have long been studied between men and women, boys and girls. Cross cultural studies have shown that around the world, little boys tend to try to figure out how things work and little girls tend to want togetherness. When given toy blocks, little boys will competitively try to build the tallest or longest construction, while little girls will make circles in which all can play together. All of this points to the fact that women tend to make better leaders in many situations, and certainly always a significantly important part of any team.

I want to step aside from the science for a moment to respond to some of the criticism to this series thus far. Some people feel that these differences are arbitrary and unimportant, or merely conjecture. While much of feminism strives to prove that women can be just as good as men, we need an entirely different appreciation for women as women. It’s very unpopular to speak about gender differences. I don’t think diversity means that everyone should be viewed the same. Same respect? Yes. The human person deserves the highest respect possible, but not because we are all the same. If society was, and is in many ways, a male dominated system, I think it is a very weak argument for women to say, “we can do just as good as men can.” Male domination has convinced society that the part women play is not as important as man’s. First of all domination is not something to strive for, and second of all women contribute something entirely different than men to every aspect of life. This includes marriage, family and the home, the neighborhood, business and the economy, government, and the society in general. From philosophy to art to science and everything in between, women have something unique and important to contribute, precisely because they are women and not men.

Pope Francis spoke about this last week. He said, “The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework … we don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church. We talk about whether they can do this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.” Even in the Church’s theology, according to Pope Francis, we need to move away from a “woman can do what a man can do” mentality to explore what makes a woman unique and important and beautiful for being a woman and not a man.

As long as the feminist argument is reduced to “we are just as good as men are,” feminism is losing. In order to make the real argument for real feminism – an argument that shouldn’t have to be made in the first place – we need to understand precisely how men and women are different. In our diversity we have complementarity, and complementarity necessitates mutual respect and admiration.

This specific trait of empathy-based collaboration is an excellent example of something women typically have more access to, and a very compelling reason to afford equal treatment, equal respect, and equal opportunity in the workplace. Maybe even preferential treatment when team cohesion and collaboration is at stake. And as far as train conductors, women make for a much more enjoyable trip.

2 Comments
  • brownco5mom
    Posted at 14:55h, 06 August

    Hi Dr. Greg,
    I am really enjoying your blog which I found only recently. I’d like to say that this current series on the superpowers of women is fascinating and, as a 54 year old wife and mother with a background in chemistry and biology, I rejoice in the teachings of JPII that you are expounding here! Please continue to share with us.

  • Leah
    Posted at 03:50h, 09 August

    I’ve read your blog, and I find it pretty fascinating because not only do the innate differences between men and women that you claim to observe run counter to my life experiences and observations, but I have also read books which have provided a multitude of research that runs counter to the research you have cited. Regardless, I’m sure neither you nor your readers who most likely view things the way you do have any interest in my experiences, observations, etc., but I did want to respond to the end of this post where you broach the key question: is it better to treat everyone as an individual, or as a representative of a group?

    You said that you “don’t think diversity means that everyone should be viewed the same.” So why not view everyone as an individual, instead of either a stereotypical male or stereotypical female? Having a preconceived notion of what someone is like before you meet them is more likely to be detrimental than beneficial. I’m sure you are well aware of what confirmation bias is and how we as humans tend to only notice or remember or accept evidence that supports our preconceived notions and naturally discard or don’t take in evidence that runs counter to our preconceived beliefs. Therefore, actively promoting gender stereotypes will thoroughly get in the way of seeing a person for who they really are, instead of who you expect them to be. When you have such rigid expectations and views of what a person is like based on whether they are a man or woman, you will naturally notice and highlight any aspect of that person that falls into your preconceived notions and discard aspects of the person which go against your expectations.

    I am also sure that you are aware of what stereotype threat is with regards to performance (both with women and people of color, etc.) – the typical example being that when men and women are given a math test, men will outperform women, but if women are told at the beginning of the test that both men and women do equally well on the test, suddenly women (as if by magic!) perform just as well as the men. These results have been repeated over and over and over again in a wide variety of situations where there is a preconceived notion that the group that you belong to will underperform (or outperform) other groups. In reality, there is a great value in telling women that they “can do just as good as men can,” considering those exact words can eliminate stereotype threat.

    Moreover, in the business world saying that “women contribute something entirely different than men” really makes no sense in many contexts – if I get my knee replaced, what’s important is whether I am able to walk again, if I get my car fixed, what’s important is whether I can drive it off the lot, etc. Of course there are many subjective elements to business and life, but there are also many objective realities which can be easily measured, and it is very important that women get the message loud and clear that they are just as capable of producing the same objective results as men, whether in school or at work.

    I don’t understand your rationale for claiming that “we need to understand precisely how men and women are different.” How does this change anything? The whole point of dissolving gender stereotypes is to allow every person to be their genuine self and fulfill their potential as much as humanly possible, whether you are an introverted, pragmatic, analytical women in the sciences, or a verbal, emotional, sensitive man in the arts, or whether you feel that your personality and talents and desires fit neatly into the traditional gender roles, the whole point of having an egalitarian society is that every person has the same opportunity to contribute their talents and abilities regardless of how close or divergent they are from traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Again, what would be the harm of treating every person as an individual?

    Also, how does will saying that “complementarity necessitates mutual respect and admiration” make sense? If men and women are the same, they should not respect and admire each other? It seems that men manage to respect and admire each other, no?

    Addressing your specific example, even if it’s true that on average women are more likely to work better than men in a group situation, considering there are huge amounts of extroverted men that would work a lot better in groups than introverted women, etc., to form a bias in the hiring or promotion process based on perceived gender strengths or weaknesses certainly does not seem like a good precedent to set. (Either way, this whole discussion is moot – if you’ve read Susan Cain’s Quiet you’re aware that the scientific evidence shows that people are far more productive and creative when brainstorming on their own than in a group.)

    It appears that you claim a person’s sex is the most important/defining characteristic of that person, that it is much more salient than the multitudes of variations in the endless complexity that each person encompasses, and I think you are a long way from providing any real evidence that this is the case.

    Considering this is only my response to the second half of this one post, I’m sure you can appreciate that I’ve refrained from commenting on anything else you’ve written =)