Women and Complexity: Strategic Multitaskers

Businesswoman negotiating with menBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Are women better than men at understanding and managing complexity?

We’ve all heard that one reason women make great leaders is because we are better at multitasking. Juggling work, family, household, and personal responsibilities, we’ve become particularly skilled at working in complex environments with many variables and competing objectives at stake, and coming up with solutions for issues that have many different angles.

Sure – it makes sense. But until recently, women’s legendary multitasking abilities seemed they could also just be a myth – that women cope well in complex situations simply because we have to. Are women good at multitasking because of neural wiring? Or are we good at multitasking because of societal pressures? Maybe there’s no difference between men and women when it comes to our ability to handle complex situations.

But, in fact, recent university research is suggesting otherwise. Studies show that women’s brains have, in fact, developed to make complex, strategic decisions – exactly the kind of solutions today’s business leaders need to be equipped for. Here’s how.

Developing 360 Degree Solutions

At this year’s WomenCorporateDirectors 2011 Global Institute, Edie Weiner, President of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., a futurist consulting group, suggested in her keynote [PDF] that recent research shows that women have more connections in their brains – which means a heightened ability to understand complex situations. She said,

“Neuroscience, through brain imaging, is increasingly demonstrating the differences in the computational models of the male and female brain. The female brain, with its 10 to 20 million more connections in the corpus callosum connecting the left and right hemispheres, operates in a more integrated, parallel processing mode, taking many more variables into account. This may make many women seem as if they are not efficiently focused on problems and solutions. But in effect, they are effectively resolving problems and outcomes by looking at the 360 degree radius around the issue.”

In fact, the 1982 study by C DeLacoste-Utamsing and RL Holloway, published in Science, found that women tend to have a “more bulbous and larger splenium,” an area of the corpus calosum, the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the two hemispheres. According to the two researchers this may account for differences in “the degree of lateralization for visuospatial functions.”

This means that women may be better than men at using both sides of their brain at once to gather information about their environment and teammates.

Impact on Strategic Planning

Women’s brains may be better equipped than men at multitasking, to gather disparate types of information, but does that mean they’re better at processing that information in a strategic manner?

A recent study by the University of Hertfordshire seems to show just that, with women performing 70 percent better than men on a recent test – particularly when it came to multitasking as it pertains to strategic planning.

According to ScienceDaily, the study had university students performing several different tests in a short period of time, such as “simple maths problems, map reading, answering a telephone caller asking general knowledge questions, and showing the strategy they would use to search for an imaginary lost key in a field.”

Dr. Keith Laws said, “The search for the lost key task, which involved giving the men and women a blank sheet of paper representing a field and asking them to draw how they would search for the key, revealed that women planned more strategically than men.” He continued, “I was surprised by this result given the arguments that men have better spatial skills than women.

The test seems to show that women are better at multitasking, when it comes to putting environmental clues together to formulate a plan of action. While this is, of course, only a small, recent study of university students, it does imply that women may have the edge when formulating solutions to complex problems.

Are women better than men at multitasking and managing complexity? At this point, the science is inconclusive, but it is interesting. As the global economy becomes ever more complex, though, companies would do well to ensure they have female leaders on board, to access this potential brain power. In the 21st century, they’re going to need it.