Men, Women …

and the Pursuit of Happiness

I was fascinated by the Op Ed piece in yesterday's New York Times by Simon Baron-Cohen, who researches the role of hormones in human development. In brief, Baron-Cohen believes that the production of testosterone in the womb is responsible for the penchant for "systematizing" that characterizes the male brain, while the lack of this hormone is responsible for the female brain's greater capacity for empathy. This is why male babies tend to focus their eyes on objects, while female babies tend to focus on human faces. Baron-Cohen believes this is also the reason that autism occurs primarily in boys—autism being an extreme form of systematizing. Of course he notes that this phenomenon exists in general, and is not true for every male and female.

I'm interested because of the parallels with my own work. Over the last year, I've been working with a partner, Julie Johnson, researching how men and women perceive, value, define, and pursue happiness in different ways, and how this difference affects them at work. We think this is hugely important because most organizations still structure reward and address motivation based upon male models. And we believe this is the underlying reason that so many organizations still struggle to attract, retain, develop, and inspire talented women.

Drawing on interviews and on the Satisfaction Perception Tool that we developed, we have begun to chart the ways in which various sources of joy motivate people at work. We're finding that men take greater satisfaction in abstract measures of success—position, money, besting an opponent—whereas women tend to judge success based upon the quality of their days—their interactions with others, the deepening of relationships, achieving a sense of balance and wholeness in their moment-to-moment. Obviously, this is not true for all women and all men, but we are identifying strong patterns.

Baron-Cohen's research suggests that these patterns run deep and have an underlying hormonal explanation. I can't judge that, but it's fascinating to watch these differences play out in a very concrete way in the contemporary workplace.

[Note: This is an offering from our Cool Friend Sally Helgesen, who sends us copies of posts from her own website.]