“Do you have a favorite female surfer?” my surfing buddy Yannick asked me a few years ago.
“Carissa Moore,” I replied like a shot.
“But she surfs like a man!” Yannick countered.
So? What does that mean: surfing like a man? Or like a woman? And who defines that?
Women’s issues in general and gender issues in particular don’t interest me. I don’t even have an opinion to express about it. However, I am very interested in the human brain and have recently read the highly recommended book “Gender Mosaic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain” by Daphna Joel. Joel analyzed over 1400 brain scans in search of typically male or female brains. Simplified, her findings are as follows:
The brain has no gender
- “Most brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.” (Quote, page 70, D. Joel: Gender Mosaic. 2021).
- However, there are also people with male genitals (this is how Joel describes it), i.e., men, who have more female “mosaics” in the brain and vice versa. In these people, behaviors or personality traits are more pronounced that are more “typical” of the other gender.
- It is not the genitals, nor hormonal cocktails that accompany them, that determine the structures and circuitry of our brains and thus our thinking and personality. Instead, we have concepts of men and women. We (unconsciously) tell ourselves stories about them and behave accordingly, and this shapes personality.
Babies become communicative women and men – if you talk to them
In practice, it looks like this: For example, on average we talk to female babies more than male babies because we unconsciously assume that they are more communicative and they then become so. This is true on a statistical average. But a lot of parents read to their boys just as much as they would do to the average girl. Likewise, there are parents who challenge their daughters physically just as much as they would usually do with a boy. As a result, there are also men who are communicative and imaginative, and women who excel in tough “men’s sports.”
Thinking – stories we constantly tell ourselves
For many years I have been far less concerned with the question of why someone is the way they are. Instead, I am much more interested in how people can change. In this context I greatly value “The Work” by Byron Katie. In this work, the validity of our thoughts about ourselves and others is challenged very consistently. Byron Katie asks – who would you be without your story? The stories we permanently tell ourselves are called “thinking,” by the way.
I applied “The Work” some time ago with a female coachee, let’s call her Tanja. Tanja is the new Head of Controlling at a medium-sized company. She is smart, extremely competent, and ambitious. Her managing director thinks very highly of her, yet she often sells herself and her performance short. Together, Tanja and I prepare the first budget planning round she will be chairing, which includes a number of meetings with her managers. Tanja is extremely well prepared in terms of content, but still feels uneasy about the first meeting.
Shaking up your own stories
Me – “What are you worried about when you think about the meetings?”
Tanja – “That nobody will take me seriously because I’m a woman.”
We first reflect on who actually doesn’t take Tanja seriously.
- Is it other managers?
- Or is it her high standards and fear of not being good enough that diminish her performance?
- Does she find it difficult to fully appreciate her own results?
- Is she already taking herself completely seriously in her new role?
The story Tanja tells herself about her managers is starting to falter a bit.
Who would you be without that thought?
I go one step further and ask Byron Katie’s four questions.
Me – “1st question: Is it true? You are a woman?”
Tanja looks at me in an irritated way – “Well, of course!”
Me – “2nd question: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”
Tanja – “Yes of course I am a woman. 100%!”
Me – “3rd question: How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought, ‘I am a woman’?”
Tanja – “I get insecure and think that they don’t take me seriously. I feel small and think I can’t assert myself anyway.”
I follow up with – “What do you see in the managers when you believe the thought, ‘I am a woman’?”
Tanja closes her eyes and pays close attention to how she is feeling – “They turn into a big, insurmountable obstacle. I lose my courage. It almost doesn’t make sense for me to go to the meeting anymore.”
Me – “4th question: Who would you be without the thought, ‘I am a woman’?”
Minimizing the fear factor of your own story
People who are not familiar with “The Work” often find this question confusing. The point is not to deny facts. Of course, in terms of facts, Tanja and the situation don’t change. She still has her experience and is well-prepared for the meeting, she also still has her genitals. However, for a moment she should merely suppress the thought – “I am a woman.” You can think of it as turning off the creepy soundtrack in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho. The movie is still about murder, but the fear factor decreases. Since Tanja is very familiar with the methodology behind “The Work,” she immediately succeeds in blocking out the thought – “I am a woman.” She responds to the question: “Who would you be without that thought?”
At that moment, I realized a few things myself.
Versatility begins in our own head
It is not “only” “the men” who think women are less competent. Many women, like Tanja, unconsciously believe it themselves and, if I’m honest, I sometimes do too. There is a part of me that time and again believes men are more capable than women. This part believes that people with male genitals are better at math, are cleverer and more strategic, braver, and more business-minded than people with female genitals. There may be men for whom this is the case, but there are also women who are superior to men in precisely these competencies. Certain characteristics are, on average, represented more strongly in one gender than in the other. Whether this applies to the specific man or woman sitting in front of me at the moment, however, remains to be seen. How much easier would it be for us to make teams more diverse if we as people were to develop a real awareness of this? How very differently could we shape cooperation if we let go of (unconscious) stories such as “women are like this – and men are like that”?
So much more than a woman
I let Tanja do the ” turnarounds.” An important part of “The Work” is to turn around the original thought – in this case: “I am a woman” – and to find evidence why these turnarounds can also be true. If this is successful, the original thought loses its (fear) factor.
Tanja, somewhat unsettled – “I am NOT a woman?”
Me – “Why could that be true?”
Tanja – “Because at that moment I’m just the Head of Controlling and it’s completely irrelevant what gender I am. Because I have a role. Because it’s about planning and not about me. Because I represent a topic. Because I am so much more than a woman.” BAM! No further questions.
A few weeks ago, Tanja’s managing director approached me and wanted to know what I had done with her. He said she was unrecognizable. She seemed so confident and composed. I told him nothing and encouraged him to ask Tanja herself. As a coach, I work according to the motto: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
In 2021, surfing was an Olympic discipline for the first time. Carissa Moore won the gold medal in women’s surfing – deservedly so. She was strategic, smart, and competent. She made the most of decidedly difficult conditions. Her surf was full of power and aesthetically pleasing. When she realized she had won, she was already crying tears of joy in the water. Just like the men’s surfing gold medalist Italo Ferreira. Carissa is a woman. Italo is a man. They are both fantastic surfers and impressive people. Completely regardless of their genitals. End of story.