Stereotypes about the sexes are as old as the hills, and have little proof. If men and women acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses then leaders of any sex will get ahead.
The perception that women are more intuitive and less rational than men is as old as history itself. Despite this, managerial psychologists are either divided on the matter or ignore it completely. However, my recent research interviewing Australian CEOs, directors and chairs about intuition use goes a long way to explaining this perception. Rather than suggesting that women have better intuition or are more intuitive, my findings show that women, in general, are more orientated to their feelings and intuitions, and are thus more likely to acknowledge, trust and rely their intuitions – and talk about them.
As I have previously described for Dynamic Business, in-depth interviews with 38 of our top leaders showed that they all use intuition frequently and consider it very important to their decision-making and leadership. However, a major component of my Ph.D. research was to also explain why they don’t talk about it. According to numerous international studies, intuition tends to be a silent or private practice. The results of my research were both surprising and ground-breaking. As would be expected, I found that intuition is not talked about in part because business decisions need to be justified to stakeholders. There is an expectation to provide rationale and evidence to justify important decisions. Intuitions are not defensible – by definition intuition is non-rational (as opposed to irrational). Intuition is also regarded by some as esoteric and non-scientific. Unless leaders own their organisation or have a strong enough track record – like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch (whom all spoke about their intuition) – most leaders would be unwilling to attribute an important decision solely to a gut-feeling. However, it also became apparent in the first few interviews that there was another important reason why intuition is more likely to be associated with women – because they are more willing and able to talk about it.
This discovery came about through analysing the responses to one question – ‘How does it feel when you get an intuition – what is your subjective experience”? I found there was a stark difference between the way men and women answered this question (an observation that led me to recruit an equal number of men and women). Many of the male participants were uncomfortable with this question about their feelings. Some gave minimal responses and some avoided the question by changing the subject. I had the impression that many thought such a question was unusual, even strange or inappropriate, or just hard to answer. One chairman of a major organisation indicated his discomfort by tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair so loudly it was later audible on the recording. On the other hand, all the women in the study seemed comfortable answering and gave thoughtful and eloquent replies, often using metaphors. The women in the study demonstrated a greater orientation to their feelings through their willingness and ability to express them. This finding was mirrored on the experience of one CEO:
I’ve got a 50/50 split in my executive team. And it creates some difficulty because the women want to talk about what they’re feeling and experiencing… the blokes… (suppressing mirth) get very irritated… because they don’t.
Orientation to feelings is important for intuition disclosure because intuition is a feeling of knowing. It also has consequences for how decision making is done. For example, one woman said that in difficult decision making circumstances, she put time aside to allow her feelings to come foreward:
You still yourself and you wait for the inner turmoil to settle … like stirring up the mud in a pond … and if you just sit with it, it’ll settle, and you can be clear about what it is that you are experiencing …
On the other hand, men are less likely to explore what they feel and, in relation to intuition disclosure, are more likely to ascribe their gut feelings to ‘experience’ and ‘judgement’. While intuition does come from experience, and is involved in judgement, such terms mask the role of gut-feelings and represent an orientation to exterior action rather than interior receptivity.
On the basis of these findings I argue that it is not that women have better intuition or are more intuitive. I suggest that women are more connected to their intuition through their willingness and ability to engage with their inner world – they have a greater interiority. I found studies that backed up my findings. It seems that men are more comfortable with talking about ‘exterior’ things – the footy, cars, real estate, machines and technology. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to want to talk about relationships, what happened in them and how it made them feel. Men are less inwardly orientated in general, but not exclusively – we are all individuals.
Context is very important because the brain is plastic and changes in harmony to circumstance and activity. For example, in 1923, one of the founding members and first president of the American Psychological Association, said that intuition works on a “lower plane of intellectuality exhibited by some who have limited powers of abstractive thinking, most notably women, young children and dogs”. However, girls now are equal to, or outperform boys in maths and science, as a result of better opportunities and different expectations in education (at least in most of the West). Similarly, men who spend a lot of time in careers which require good connection to feelings – like acting, child care and nursing – show a greater inward orientation through a better ability to perceive and talk about their feelings, and those of others. There has also been a generational shift as young men benefit from the post-feminist redefinition of masculinity as well as more conscious and educated parenting. However, the leaders of Australia’s largest and therefore most influential organisations are older men (only 2 percent are women). As Melbourne Uni’s Professor Amanda Sinclair’s points out, the result can be a culture of ‘masculinities’. This is illustrated well in the words of one male participant:
But I would have to have gone to XXXX and say – look, all of it looks good on paper and the objective facts are that we’ve got to support this position, but having looked at all of that, and on the basis of my intuition about these people, I don’t think it’s the right thing for us – they would have said – go and have counselling will you!
I think men’s intuition is just as good as women’s – intuition is a human faculty after all – just as much as IQ. Men just need to learn to acknowledge it, tune in to it, talk about it, and make the most of it.