“Testosterone makes people cocky, egocentric, and narcissistic.”— Robert M. Sapolsky (Innovation Show)
“Androgenic” is the adjective form of the noun “androgen”. Androgens are a group of hormones that play a role in male traits and reproductive activity. All genders make androgens, but males make more of them. The word androgen comes from Greek meaning “male-makers.” In this week’s Thursday Thought, I posit that organisations have been traditionally “male making”, they make male behaviours the norm. Many women have had enough of this phenomenon and are quietly quitting, while others are doing so loudly in what has been dubbed “The Great Break Up”. This post is inspired by the recent series on The Innovation Show called Brains, Beliefs and Biases and the most recent episode of that series with Simon LeVay on his book, “Gay, Straight and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation.”
In rats and mice, the uterus consists of two tube-like “horns,” and the foetuses are strung out along each horn like peas in a pod as in the image below. Chance dictates how many there are of each sex and how they are positioned relative to one another. Does that matter you may wonder? It turns out that matters a lot.
Foetuses (of either sex) that happen to be located between two males develop higher levels of testosterone in their blood than foetuses of the same sex that don’t have a male neighbour. Due to this proximity, female foetuses absorb traces of testosterone that crosses the short space between adjacent foetuses. This exposure to higher-than-usual levels of testosterone in the intrauterine environment has long-lasting effects on the animals’ brains that control male sexual behaviour and has an impact on their behaviour. In many cases, it shifts the female behaviour pattern toward a more male pattern.
While this particular effect is irrelevant to the majority of humans, research shows that women who are members of opposite-sex twin pairs, and have been exposed to higher-than-usual levels of testosterone during foetal life, can also show more male-like behaviour than other women.
(“Womb of the World” a Van-Syl-Production)
While the word “environment” can be misleading, in the context of this week’s Thursday Thought, I mean it as the biological environment of the womb. Thereafter environment includes the various life experiences that we are exposed to (parenting styles, influence by others, media, trauma etc.).
These concepts provide a striking metaphor for the “organisational environment” in a large number of businesses. Just as the shared intrauterine male-dominant environment has an impact on the behaviour of the female foetus, so too can a male-dominated organisation influence behaviour of women in the workplace.
Let’s use the layout of foetuses to represent a board, an exco, a senior leadership team or any group in an organisation, as per my crude diagram below.
Imagine now that poor lady, sitting in a testosterone-filled working environment, do you think it has an impact on her workplace behaviour?
There is evidence that biological factors such as prenatal hormones play a role in childhood behaviours which persist throughout life. Take, for example, the genetic condition congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or CAH. In CAH, a genetic mutation knocks out one of the enzymes involved in the manufacture of certain hormones allowing the adrenal glands to secrete higher-than-normal levels of androgens (testosterone-like hormones). CAH girls are, on average, more active and aggressive than unaffected girls, they engage in more rough-and-tumble play, and choose playmates (of either sex) who engage in such play. They have toy preferences similar to those of boys, are better than other girls at some visuospatial tasks (such as targeting), are less interested in infant care or doll play, are less certain that they want to be mothers when they grow up and are more likely to have a masculine gender identity. These effects tend to be greater in girls who have the more severe forms of the condition and who therefore probably had more exposure to androgens.
The organisational environment is awash with androgens and thus the corporate brain is exposed to an excess of testosterone. This has a dramatic impact on how organisations are run and indeed how they form leaders of tomorrow.
Helen Fisher of Rutgers University tells us “People expressive of the testosterone system are tough-minded, direct, decisive, sceptical, and assertive. They tend to be good at what we called rule-based systems: engineering, computers, mechanics, math, and music.” Meanwhile, “People who are expressive of the estrogen/oxytocin system tend to be intuitive, imaginative, trusting, empathetic, and contextual long-term thinkers. They are sensitive to people’s feelings, too, and typically have good verbal and social skills.”
An androgenic (male-making) business environment may have worked in a more mechanical business world. Today, we need a more human world. We need a balance of all the necessary hormones, but we need more of the female traits mentioned above to navigate a more ambiguous (business) world. As friend of the Innovation Show and forthcoming guest, Friederike Fabritius tells us, testosterone is essential, it makes us feel superhuman, and it gives us overconfidence. However, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and corporate arrogance sinks organisations.
Former guest on the Innovation Show, Bruce Lipton told us, “genetics loads the gun but the environment pulls the trigger”. This term highlights the complex relationship between human disease and the environment. In a similar vein, in organisations, an imbalance of androgens loads the gun and the business environment pulls the trigger.
It’s time for an update.
Thanks for Reading