I pose this question to my audiences every time I speak. I ask, “How many of you think men are more emotionally intelligent than women?” Usually, 10% of the room or less raise their hands – and sometimes no hands go up with lots of giggles. I then ask, “How many of you think women are more emotionally intelligent than men?” Inevitably, 90% or more of the room raise their hands.
We all assume that women are more emotionally intelligent – perhaps because women tend to express emotions more than men. However, in the millions of people who have taken emotional intelligence assessments worldwide, men and women have been shown to be equally emotionally intelligent.
So, what is emotional intelligence or EQ? Here’s the formal definition.
It’s a set of emotional and social skills that collectively establish how well we:
- Perceive and express ourselves
- Develop and maintain our social relationships
- Cope with challenges, manage stress and make decisions
- Use emotional information to guide our thinking and action
In essence, it’s your people skills. It determines how well you get along with others and play in the sandbox! Some of you may know what EQ is and some may not. But you all know the skills involved as they are evident every single day in our behavior, you just don’t call them EQ.
What I find really fascinating about EQ is that numerous studies have linked emotional intelligence with success in work, life and in leadership. Those who have higher EQs are generally more successful than their lower EQ counterparts, regardless of their IQ level.
Now, let’s get back to the gender question.
Even though we are equal in our overall EQ, men and women possess different EQ strengths or competencies that are considered gender specific. In general, women tend to score higher than men in areas of empathy, interpersonal relationships and social responsibility. Men tend to score higher than women in areas of assertiveness, stress tolerance and self-regard (or confidence).
Recent research exploring emotional intelligence suggests these differences may play a role in the leadership gender gap. These differences often advantage men and disadvantage women at work.
It may come as no surprise to you that men and women are hard-wired differently, meaning that we have differences in our neuroanatomy or brain structures. At a basic level, these differences cause us to think and behave differently. However, I believe that socialization – the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society – can be even more powerful in shaping who we become in society.
We are bombarded with both direct and indirect messages our entire lives about how we should behave. We receive these messages through our parents, family members, friends, teachers, coaches, magazines, books, movies, television, and even the toys we play with.
Boys are socialized very early on to be competitive, confident, assertive, decisive, and even aggressive. Boys are taught about hierarchy and that winning is the most important thing. Girls receive very different messages in their childhoods. Girls are socialized to be nurturing, care about others, show emotions, get along, and be empathetic. Girls learn that the process is more important than winning and that relationships are key.
In these early lessons, boys start developing the skills to be assertive and confident. Girls start developing the skills of empathy and interpersonal relationships. We continue to receive these reinforced messages into adulthood and carry these behaviors and beliefs into the workplace. It’s no surprise then, that men outperform women in the EQ skills of assertiveness and confidence, and women outperform men in the EQ skills of empathy and interpersonal relationships. Our hard-wired neurobiology plays a part too, but socialization pressures on how we should behave in society are almost inescapable for most of us.
So, how does this relate to work and leadership? When we envision a leader; most people tend to think in male terms. For example, we think competitive, confident, assertive, decisive, or independent. We rarely hear leadership characteristics like empathy, relationship-oriented, strong communicator, collaborative, or supportive. The term for this is agentic leader qualities and it’s a type of bias. Both men and women associate leadership traits with behaviors believed to be more common or appropriate in men.
The problem is that leadership qualities are the same as those used to describe males because the socialization process has produced the expectation that male social qualities also happen to be leadership qualities. Therefore, the belief is that when women are in leadership positions, they should demonstrate agentic qualities, fulfilling the expectations that leaders are assertive, competent and dominant. The rub is that agentic behavior is viewed as less desirable in women, creating the classic double standard that favors men. The cross-pressure of communal qualities people prefer in women and agentic qualities people prefer in leaders puts a tremendous burden on female leaders who are trying to find a leadership style that works for them.
What can we do?
First, change how you envision a leader. We need to broaden our definition of what makes a good leader. Why can’t they be empathetic? This trait doesn’t take anything away from one’s substance, intelligence, analytical ability, or capacity to mobilize a team toward a goal. Can they be socially responsible, supportive, or a great collaborator?
Second, it’s important to know that not all men and women fall into the gender specific EQ patterns referenced above. People are strong in all different EQ traits and the good news is that you can raise the level of your overall emotional intelligence with just a little bit of focus and effort. Unlike personality or IQ, the EQ for men and women can improve with age – and hopefully it does.
I dive deeper into these issues in my best-selling book, The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, and the Gender Divide.
To learn more and access free resources, you can also go to my website at drshawnandrews.com.
Article posted on Forbes.com and ForbesWomen.com on Oct 9, 2019