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Empathy has a gender bias — Here's how we can close the gap

Empathy is a skill we can hone and refine, says Mimi Nicklin, author of “Softening the Edge” and host of “Empathy for Breakfast.”
Mimi Nicklin is the author of "Softening The Edge", forthcoming from The Dreamwork Collective and host of the weekly show, "Empathy for Breakfast."
Mimi Nicklin is the author of "Softening The Edge", forthcoming from The Dreamwork Collective and host of the weekly show, "Empathy for Breakfast."Courtesy of Mimi Nicklin.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate,” I hear the couple at the table next to me say over their lunch. I am not purposefully listening in, but the COVID-19 recovery reality means the café is partially empty, and it’s easier to overhear conversations.

They continue to discuss their concerns for how long coronavirus will impact our world, and one notion becomes glaringly apparent: The woman appears to be far more concerned for the families and society around them than her partner. His focus is on team structure, business as ‘usual’ and financial recovery. Hers is about the wellbeing and safety of teachers and office staff as society returns to some version of normal. “How will people return to the office without full time school support?” she ponders, and continues “how will those that work in public environments stay safe?”

Is this conversation proof of a widely assumed empathy deficit on the man’s part, or is it just a different view of the world? Are women biologically prone to empathizing more deeply and naturally, or is it a lifetime of social ‘training’ that has led women to generally be more pro social as a natural response?

A common misconception is that we are born with differing levels of natural empathic ‘ability’ but research has now shown that empathy is a skill that we can hone and refine. Neurologically we are all born with a very similar ability to empathize, male and female, but our choice to use this ability varies greatly. While research results vary and are still in their infancy across the board, observed gender differences are more likely to be largely due to cultural expectations of gender roles and the fact that women are more likely to have been ‘taught’ empathy by female role models as they grew up.

Research in 2018 showed that although women, on average, do score, higher in EQ tests than men, there doesn’t appear to be a genetic basis for those differences. Why might women behave differently, and how can we work together to close the empathy gap for everyone?

Do our hormone’s make a difference?

"Given the biological differences between men and women — for example hormones and hormone levels - it could be possible that some of these hormones that are present in greater levels in women can drive some of the higher empathetic scores," said Varun Warrior, lead study author of the above 2018 research. “Oxytocin, which is found in higher levels in women, can make people more empathic, while testosterone, present in higher concentrations in men, could do the opposite.”

Male or female, in your next meeting, make the decision to actively see the world through the eyes of others. Stop listening to form an answer and start listening to exactly what is being said – both verbally and via the person’s body language. The consciousness of this is a huge step towards reducing the gap between you. Due to our neuro-biology, once you send the instruction to your brain to activate the neurons responsible for mirroring and empathizing with those around you, this will become an increasingly natural response.

Longstanding social expectations are a reality.

We can link social and cultural impact on our decision to activate our empathy. In general, socially nurturing roles have been placed on and around women and girls for decades, and there is a high likelihood that this learned awareness and shared skillset has been shared generationally.

Body language does however fill many of the connectivity gaps across all team structures that we are experiencing. Consider eye contact, the direction of your shoulders (facing your audience) and leaning in as key pillars of showing empathy. When people feel ‘seen’ and actively listened to, they feel ‘heard’ and almost instantly share a deeper, more valuable set of information. This is a subconscious and powerfully insightful response that you can actively provoke.

Women do score higher on coaching and mentoring in many academic studies

This means we can assume women are more prone to activating empathy as an instinctive path to driving success and results in those around them. Naturally connecting with their audiences and peers in a way that nurtures their growth, by placing themselves into the context of another, is an approach that, whilst not exclusive to women, has been seen to score more highly, more often, in female research participants.

Choice of words and use of language is powerful in changing team dynamics in all workplace engagements. Consider the ‘repeat and rephrase’ method whereby you repeat back to people what they have said to ensure deep alignment – “What I am hearing you say is ‘this,’ am I right?” This gives people the opportunity to course-correct information but more importantly reassures them you are hearing them and encourages deeper trust and connectivity.

Hypothesis aside, what we do know with certainty is that declining levels of empathy are across all of society and require urgent change. We are seeing a 30-year decline in our empathy levels globally, and this ‘empathy gap’ is ever widening. The impact socially is vast; causing an array of social issues from loneliness, to anxiety, depression and burnout. 50 percent of us will not be able to make the changes our world needs, but 100 percent of us can. With our current health threat, economic uncertainty and societal unrest it’s going to take all of us taking concrete action together; not as men or as women, but all of us aligned.

In the end, evolution will reign supreme and fundamentally evolution has honed our ability to mutually connect with each other as a pro social survival mechanism. It’s worth remembering therefore that our survival has never been about sex, but about success.

Mimi Nicklin is the author of Softening The Edge, forthcoming from The Dreamwork Collective and host of the weekly breakfast show, Empathy for Breakfast. Find Mimi on Instagram @miminicklin.