Can Men Be Trained To Understand Women?

By Julie Rains on 8 November 2008 18 comments
Photo: h.koppdelaney

According to Michael Gurian, co-author of Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business with Barbara Annis, not only can men be trained to understand and value the sometimes nurturing and collaborative leadership styles of some women, but women can learn to respect what they might perceive as the hyper-competitiveness and abruptness of some men. These traits, they argue, are hard-wired rather than created purely through cultural and societal influences. 

Through their respective companies, both Michael of The Gurian Institute and Barbara of Barbara Annis & Associates Inc. offer specialized training that yields bottom-line results for client companies. In a telephone conversation, Michael took a few moments to help me understand brain-based gender-intelligence training.

I asked what many readers might wonder: does he get negative reaction when he proposes that women might operate differently than men or that men might think differently than women? He told me that the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. There are several reasons why Michael's approach has not been controversial among his audiences; he:

  • proposes that men and women are equally but differently intelligent, thereby avoiding either a men-are-better or women-are-superior polarization;
  • presents scientific studies conducted over a period of 20 years, accompanied by brain scans showing differences in white and gray matter, neural activity, etc.;
  • concedes that there are exceptions to any and all generalities about gender;
  • avoids stereotyping;
  • reaches people who have gender-related problems, which they believe can be solved through greater gender intelligence.

It’s a reasonable and often successful tactic to adapt our individual styles to that of the dominant culture or, depending on the scenario, the style of the customer. However, it can be an advantage even to the dominant culture to understand, accept, and embrace different ways of thinking, problem solving, communicating, managing, and leading so that all talent – and not just some talent – contributes to corporate success.

Barbara, for example, became a sales star for Sony in the 1980s but she found that she had to forgo her authentic style for a more male-like approach. Women are often frustrated, she has found, because their styles don't sync with the corporate culture; but when they change their styles, it seems unnatural and is rejected. Or, in some cases, undergoing a daily personality change for the workplace is tiresome. (See references to barracuda in this Gender Differences report, which also covers men's unique challenges; and Catalyst's IBM-sponsored report on The Double Bind for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't). Barbara left Sony to start her own consulting firm and now teaches client organizations, such as IBM and Deloitte & Touche, how to achieve gender balance in leadership. 

In regard to the science behind gender-based differences, here are examples offered in Leadership and the Sexes:  

"Men have approximately six and a half times more gray matter related to cognition and intelligence than women have, and women have nearly ten times more white matter related to cognition and intelligence than men have. In all our brains, gray matter processes information locally in the brain, whereas white matter networks and connects information between between different information processing centers in the brain." 

“Overall, there is more neural activity in the female brain at any given time than in the male brain, as evidenced by 15 to 20 percent more blood flow, with more brain centers ‘lit up’ in a scan of a female brain. The male brain is more prone than the female to 'zone out' or 'blank out' during conversations or at times of exhaustion and stress." 

“Women have, in general, a more active cingulate gyrus than men. One result of this difference is that women’s approach to life and to work is one of constantly reassessing…Men don’t remember as much, process as much, run as much experience through the gyrus, so they spend less time internally processing, and thus can often be less contextual than women.”

The book provides practical business applications of gender intelligence for meetings, negotiations, and day-to-day communications. I've selected a few to several points that I thought were interesting and useful.


Men (and women) should understand that some women may

  • seem to change topics but are really connecting what seems to be disparate information in a (hopefully) meaningful way
  • value adequate discussion time as much as they value productive meetings that reach specific outcomes
  • feel less valued overall if their opinions are not sought

and women (and men) should understand that some men may

  • need to move around in order to stay focused 
  • become frustrated at tangential, seemingly unfocused conversations
  • lose or seem to lose interest if discussions become lengthy 

so a gender-intelligent approach to meetings may involve

  • creating a meeting agenda
  • being clear about the purpose and intended outcomes of the meeting 
  • soliciting ideas from everyone
  • building consensus by asking what each person thinks of proposals
  • connecting words to specific outcomes 
  • providing essential information and leaving out tangential information
  • saving great, but just rejected, ideas for future meetings


Men (and women) should realize that many women may

  • be able to interpret cues about what others are thinking and feeling based on facial expressions
  • take longer to make a decision because they have picked up more cues and need time to process this information
  • decide to kill a deal because of a negative comment but still continue to listen
  • prefer interest-based to position-based negotiations

women (and men) should realize that many men may

  • take greater risks in negotiations
  • focus on presenting data rather than building rapport
  • feel dominance over competitors who don’t look them in the eye
  • value specific outcomes over relationships

so a gender-intelligent approach to negotiations may mean

  • assessing the styles of all who will be participating in negotiations 
  • building a team with an expert at building rapport and an expert at presenting data
  • establishing desired outcomes
  • preserving relationships for future business dealings and negotiations


Men (and women) should understand that some women may

  • use lots of words in order to connect ideas and bring forth new ideas during the discussion
  • consider interruption a sign of disrespect and poor listening 
  • need more information and clarification than is offered initially
  • self-criticize and question themselves silently
  • enjoy process as much as outcome
  • not want to constantly hear about your accomplishments

women (and men) should realize that some men may

  • interrupt if they perceive that you are giving too much information
  • view humility as a sign of weakness
  • criticize others rather than accept negative feelings about themselves
  • only want to hear about results, not processes
  • appear not to be listening when they really are listening

so a gender-intelligent approach to communications may mean

  • dispensing criticism less bluntly with some women than some male counterparts
  • encouraging listeners to ask questions
  • realizing that good relationships in the workplace can lead to higher morale and greater productivity
  • understanding that smiling and attentiveness on the listener's part doesn't necessarily mean agreement with the speaker   
  • concentrating on giving essential information only; explain that you feel disrespected if interrupted 
  • discussing accomplishments in order to “position themselves competitively in the workplace”; for those who naturally self-promote, realizing that others may not want to work with someone who is constantly discussing his/her accomplishments
  • asking others what they think about a topic rather than trying to ascertain their interest based on their facial expressions

Do corporations immediately understand and adopt gender-intelligent behavior? Michael told me that his audiences usually experience “aha” moments when they see brain-scan differences and grasp why certain approaches lead to misunderstanding among those with differing styles. Putting the theory into real-world applications that deliver better results, though, can take some time. He will often consult with these companies over a period of year so that organizations and their members can access his wisdom as they seek to make changes.

Having a framework to value diverse approaches without diminishing the rights of others is refreshing. And, it is rewarding as well. According to research presented by Catalyst, Inc., Fortune 500 companies with greater female representation on their boards compared to those with the least representation outperform in return on equity (higher by 53%), return on sales (higher by 42%), and return on invested capital (higher by 66%).

Disclosure: I received Leadership and the Sexes in exchange for a book review.

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Guest's picture

What would be even more refreshing would be for books that reinforce gender stereotypes by using quack science, to fade away and disappear.

(message from a female whose "extreme male" brain prefers pointing out the obvious rather than building rapport)

Guest's picture

Just because 20-40 percent MIGHT fall into the presumptuous male-female extremes, the vast MAJORITY 50-70% fall into the middle of the bell curve with mixing balances. Of course depending on situation and context, those in the majority are generally forced by social prejudice to adapt and ape/express the minority extremes instead of modify for what works best. The same goes for human sexuality behaviors.

Guest's picture

...if you are considering the differences in the chemical composition of the brain when engaging a member of the opposite sex, please seek help.

Guest's picture

I do wonder if it could possibly be true that Michael Gurion actually gets positive feedback about these depressing stereotypes.
It just doesn't ring true from my experiences in a wide range of fields (from tech to criminal justice to health care to publishing).
Do other readers here find this material to reflect experiences in their work lives?

Guest's picture

Much more efficient for corporations to just hire men. Clearly the increased blood flow to women's brains has a detrimental effect on their productivity.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks, Julie for writing this up!  I found it not only interesting, but also a bit scary.  Some of the tips were characteristics were right on with 90% of the workforce I've been exposed too. 

Even if people don't agree, I'm not really sure how they could get upset -- it's not like you wrote the book.  As far as brain scans, I'm not sure how that data could be fudged, but you'll always have those who disagree that women and men are different in any respect.

Since hubby and I both own our own businesses, work at home, and like to work together in the most efficient manner possible, I might be checking out this book further.  

Linsey Knerl

P.S.  I've been known to

  • decide to kill a deal because of a negative comment but still continue to listen

so remember that for when someone makes me mad, but I still appear to be smiling.  :)


Myscha Theriault's picture

I'm not sure where others have been spending their time, but this totally represents what I have seen over the years. And yes, I too have made a negative purchasing decision and still continued to listen out of respect. And Linsey, you bring up a good point. David and I are together twenty-four seven now too. I just might need to pick up this title.

Julie Rains's picture

Michael's response also surprised me. I am wondering if, by the time they bring him in, there is buy-in at the corporations. Some of the corporate training may be called Diversity training with gender-intelligence training as a subcategory.

I also wonder if some training can backfire, if people make the wrong assumptions based on gender. For example, I wonder if financial services sales people with whom I have interacted try to build rapport and totally miss that I am a numbers-kind-of-female. Of course, if they paid attention to me saying "hey I have a degree in Business/Finance," maybe they would take a different course of action.

I do believe, though, that people can take totally different approaches and get similar results, and that I don't have to value one certain style. In the realm of education, I have found the All Kinds of Mind's neurodevelopmental framework interesting and useful. I have learned to see what my thought-processing differences are and then address my problems; fixing problems is easier when I can name them. 

That smiling politely doesn't mean "I agree" resonated with me also.

edited for a reader's concern

Linsey Knerl's picture

This is a book review.  Julie reviewed it so you wouldn't have to.  Instead of being angry with her for telling you what the book is about, direct your ire towards the author of the book.  Or better yet, just be thankful that she saved you from having to read it yourself.

She certainly didn't do anything but a service to those who find the topic offensive.  Geesh.

Linsey Knerl

Julie Rains's picture

Just a possibility, A, that those fields you have mentioned have adopted diversity practices already; the link to Barbara's clients shows these clients (sampling):

  • Tech: IBM, Compaq, Microsoft
  • Criminal Justice: Department of Justice
  • Healthcare: none that I could see
  • Publishing: Prentice Hall, Pearson Education

And here is a link to Michael's presentation to the folks at Google

And, you know Wilson, it can be more efficient in the short-term to hire people who act like everyone else in the corporate culture (whether it is same gender, same college, same race, same hometown, whatever), but the contention is not that being diverse is easy or worthy in itself but that it yields better financial returns.  


Guest's picture

A lot more capable for corporations to merely employ men. Obviously the augmented blood stream to women's brains has an unfavorable result on their output.

Guest's picture

As a woman with very masculine tendencies, I can vouch for the accuracy of this information. I am married for thirty years to a man with very feminine tendencies, we are a formidable team in business and negotiations. They never know what hit them.

Guest's picture

It's a myth that diversity helps business. Just hire the best, whoever they be.

Guest's picture

I don't think man will never be able to understand women. Women just have too many emotions, feelings, and other things going on that it would be hard to really understand them. As much as men wish that they could truly understand them, it is almost impossible.

Julie Rains's picture

The emphasis of this type of diversity program is not to choose a certain type of person as an employee in order to be more diverse. One of the key elements of Barbara's business and why corporate clients engage her is that they have hired based on ability but are now having difficulty retaining this talent. The work she does helps retain talented workers, so that these employees can contribute to the corporation rather than leaving for more friendly workplaces or to start their own businesses. 

From her article on what types of programs work:

"Ideally, we shouldn’t be striving to have great diversity programs but to do away with the barriers that create a need for them."

Guest's picture

We just interviewed philosopher and psychologist Ken Wilber for my podcast and he went into the historical and evolutionary reasons gender differences have evolved in humans.

Interesting stuff:

Beautiful range of responses to this very tender subject.

I know I have always resonated with the more "manly" aspects of life and I am almost positive it was not all socially programmed. There seems to be deep biological roots to behavior with layers of culture and nature over that.

thanks for the post.


Guest's picture

In general, male and female brains are formed differently in the womb by the effect of hormones. It's a fact. I'm sorry if this confounds anyone's social biases...

Guest's picture

I think what men need to do to understand women better is to share as many of their experiences as possible.Compulsory female role service would not be a bad idea.It would be a bit like national service they had to do, but instead of being soldiers for a year, they would live as females.If they decide they like it and continue in that role they would have the option of doing so.If they don't like it, atleast they know for one year what it's liketo be a woman to some degree.They could get some idea of what it's like to be pregnant through wearing the extra weight at the front-what's it called?
Any way ladies I'dlove to know what you think of this idea-I've never heard any one suggest it yet!