Since FDR took office in 1933, the first 100 days of a U.S. presidency loom large, and Joe Biden’s, on April 30, will be no exception.
Arguably, the passage of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, an historic $1.9 trillion relief package to combat the economic and Covid-19 crises, and the recent introduction of his “American Jobs Plan,” the most ambitious infrastructure investment in generations — will get much of the “first 100 days” media and punditry chatter.
But as a leadership neuropsychologist who specializes in gender “brain diversity,” I think there’s another achievement we mustn’t overlook: 12 of Biden’s 25 Cabinet and Cabinet-level picks were women — a glass ceiling-shattering record. What’s more, under Biden, women occupy three high-profile Cabinet-level posts for the first time in history: vice president, secretary of the treasury, and director of national intelligence.
By bringing a record number of women to the most powerful table in the world, Biden is modeling to leaders everywhere the importance of gender brain diversity in top-level agenda-setting, decision-making, governing, and more.
The best of all the brains
The dominant power structures in Western political and business cultures have been created over decades by a small subset of male brains, only then to best suit an equally small subset of other male brains. While many of the accomplishments of these power structures may be impressive, the structures themselves are inherently flawed. Why? Because they fail to access the best of all the brains in teams and organizations.
This means that what gets considered, valued, focused on, and rewarded is driven by male brains, while implicitly excluding female brains. According to my research, this hurts everyone — individuals, teams, workplaces, organizations, and even entire industries or sectors — on a number of levels.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all in this together. But we can’t collaborate and create meaningful change for the common good unless all brains are fully involved and engaged.
The reason begins with the marvel of the human brain itself.
One reason that men and women tend to think, act, and lead differently relates to the unique neural patterning of the male and female brain. Specifically, research shows that the male brain is optimized for intra-hemispheric communication, while conversely, the female brain is optimized for inter-hemispheric communication. This means that the connectivity in the female brain is more active between the two cerebral hemispheres, as compared to the male brain, where it predominantly runs back and forth within each hemisphere.
So, while the male brain has its own particular advantages, the female brain is wired for a more iterative, emergent process. For example, women tend to have a greater capacity to hold multiple, contradictory views in mind while, at the same time, remaining empathically tuned in to the persons or groups holding those views.
Combine this neural patterning with the higher levels of oxytocin (the so-called “bonding hormone”) in the female brain and, on the whole, you’re looking at women generally leaning in to greater collegiality, collaboration, and consensus, as opposed to a more adversarial approach often preferred by men.
Still, to create the best solutions to any problem, teams and organizations need both types of brains and approaches. This seems to ring true in Biden’s words in December, when he announced some of his staff picks and Cabinet nominees: “Building a diverse team will lead to better outcomes and more effective solutions to address the urgent crises facing our nation.”
The more women, the better
Alisha Haridasani Gupta, a gender reporter at The New York Times, recently wrote that Biden is “modernizing what has long been a stubbornly white, male institution.” And in the same article, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia said: “No matter how you slice and dice the data, whether you’re looking at the cabinet or at White House staff, you’re going to see the same commitment to diversity.”
Both women are right. For instance, of the first 100 White House staffers appointed by Biden, 61 percent, or nearly two in three, were women, including many women of color.
Clearly, Biden is comfortable with surrounding himself with strong, smart women. We knew that when he picked Kamala Harris as his running mate in August. But where does this commendable comfort come from? Perhaps it is his legendary capacity for empathy; or his rare ability (especially among politicians today) to be simultaneously self-assured and humble; or, at 78, the maturity of his ego. Or perhaps he trusts and believes some important research at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, showing that the collective intelligence of a group rises when there are women involved in that group. In fact, the more women, the better.
In a New York Times article “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others,” the MIT researchers wrote of their study: “Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not ‘diversity’ (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered to a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at ‘mindreading’ than men.” For context, by “mindreading,” the researchers were referring to the skill of “social sensitivity,” a kind of social intelligence.
With any luck, a pivot point
The way our brains develop in the world is as unique to each one of us as our fingerprint. And while the maleness or femaleness of our brains is by no means binary, there are some powerful neurobiological differences that can’t be ignored, overlooked, or dismissed.
Gender brain diversity, among other types of diversity, is the way forward, and Biden, in his first 100 days, has shown that he gets it. With any luck, it’ll be a pivot point for leaders everywhere. And for that, Biden’s actions must be acknowledged — and applauded.