Request a demo
Request a demo

Managers say men and women differ in these five areas: Is it true?

December 1, 2021 - 8 min read

Woman and man working together

Since the 18th century, people have been trying to determine the biological reasons behind the perceived differences in ability between men and women. Initial research focused on the brain uncovered variations in overall brain size, the ratio of grey matter and white matter, the size of the hippocampus, and the size of the amygdala — all of which seemed to account for at least some of the differences in behavior, memory, and decision making

But more recent research has uncovered flaws, biases, misinterpretations and errors that call into question many of those early findings. It turns out that our brains can be molded by our experiences regardless of our sex. And while some physical differences do exist between the brains of men and women, their effect on our abilities is minimal. 

The latest research points to socialization, not genetics as being the most influential factor. 

From birth, we’re held to different norms, behaviors, values, and beliefs based on our assigned genders. As a society, we’re beginning to break down these traditional gender roles and stereotypes. But as it stands now, there still exist differences between the way men and women communicate with others, approach problems, and generate solutions. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The beauty of diversity is relative strengths and unique perspectives. 

When it comes to our work life, perceived differences in ability and skill can greatly impact careers — for better or worse. 

We wondered whether managers see growth opportunities differently between men and women. Understanding this can shed light on general trends in perceived skill strength between genders or reveal differential standards. 

What the data say

We took a look at our manager feedback data, where managers provide input to the individual receiving coaching about where they, as their manager, see opportunities for growth through coaching. 

Interestingly, people management skills like motivating and guiding others were much higher relative to other areas like executing and innovating among both men and women. Strategic thinking was also generally seen as an important growth area. 

But separating out men from women before comparing the averages revealed statistically significant differences between genders in five of the seven key endorsement areas: 

  1. Strategic thinking
  2. Adapting
  3. Including others
  4. Motivating
  5. Executing

Compared to men, managers are more likely to recommend women focus on developing their strategic thinking and adapting.

One potential reason for the popularity of this feedback is that it is commonly believed that men have better visuospatial cognitive ability — the capacity to identify, understand and interact with our environments and objects within our environments. It includes things like the ability to read maps and being able to visualize what happens when a three dimensional object is rotated in space. Having greater visuospatial ability is thought to improve one’s strategic prowess.

But once again, the latest science is calling this notion into question. A study from the University of Limerick found that men and women have near equal spatial cognition skills. Could biased thinking that men are better strategic thinkers be influencing what managers see and expect from women?

Recent research has also revealed that men tend to make more extreme and reactive decisions than women. One proposed reason for this is that In patriarchal societies, women are not afforded the same level of variability as men. This could be influencing why managers see women as less adaptable than their male counterparts.

According to the manager feedback data, men are more likely to be recommended to focus on including others, motivating others, and executing. 

Women are generally more empathetic than men. One theory for this is that because women tend to play a greater role in the raising of offspring, they are more keenly aware of potential threats and dangers, and this awareness and connection to others spreads to those outside of their own kin. 

Socially, men have been conditioned to refrain from talking about or to even suppress their emotions. This has caused many men to lack some of the necessary elements of connection and belonging. 

Research still supports that men are also more competitive than women. Traditional concepts of masculinity tend to promote self sufficiency and individual achievement over teamwork and collaboration. This may explain why managers perceive men as being less inclusive of others. 

Innovating and guiding others were equally endorsed as growth areas for both men and women. 

Why this matters

Men and women may bring different things to the table, but so, too, do different men and different women. Diversity of perspectives and ability can be a major competitive advantage for organizations. But they also have different needs and require different kinds of help to reach their maximum potential. A one-size-fits-all approach to employee development will be ineffective at best and alienating at worst. 

It’s critical then for managers to develop inclusive leadership skills.

Inclusive managers put any preconceived notions aside and focus on the individual needs of each of their employees, regardless of their gender. They harness the strengths of each person on their team, and set realistic expectations that don’t favor any one group over another.

These leaders unlock huge productivity gains and produce massive upsides for their organizations including:

  • 90% higher team innovation 
  • 50% higher team performance
  • 140% higher team engagement
  • 54% lower turnover intention

Successful organizations are built by strong managers.

Managers have the influence and authority to greatly shape not only the career trajectory of their employees, but also their overall wellbeing. Any biases they hold or differential standards they set can have huge impacts on employee performance, happiness, and sense of belonging.

Luckily, managers no longer have to rely on broad assumptions. More and more there’s texture, specific data that supports personalized development.

Great managers build inclusive cultures that embrace the strengths and abilities of everyone on their teams as well as their differences. The results are better solutions, better ideas, and a better work experience for all. 

Lead with confidence and authenticity

Develop your leadership and strategic management skills with the help of an expert Coach.

Lead with confidence and authenticity

Develop your leadership and strategic management skills with the help of an expert Coach.

Published December 1, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Dr. Erin Eatough is an occupational health psychologist who has published research on employee well-being in over 30 outlets such as the Journal of Applied Psychology and has been featured in media outlets such as Harvard Business Review. Erin currently serves BetterUp in translating data to insight and helps to bring the science of BetterUp to life through content marketing. Erin received her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida.

Before BetterUp, Erin was a professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband and two young children. When not working, you can find her and her family on adventures in their tiny home on wheels, a converted Sprinter van.

Read Next

Research & Insights
5 min read | September 27, 2021

A new kind of leadership for a new world of work

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve tracked over 10,000 BetterUp Members engaged in 1:1 personalized coaching. Our data provide a window into the unique differences,... Read More
Leadership & Management
12 min read | November 8, 2021

The key mindsets sales leaders need to unlock success: Q&A with Brad McCracken, Global VP of Sales at BetterUp

Global sales leader Brad McCracken on the mindsets and behaviors sales leaders need to help their teams succeed at every stage and why coaching makes a difference. Read More
Leadership & Management
15 min read | August 12, 2022

Boss versus leader: Develop the skills to bring out the best of both

What’s the difference between a boss vs leader? Both are in charge, but bring different skills to the table. Learn the traits to cultivate with your team. Read More
15 min read | February 16, 2021

What it means to be a great team leader and how to become one

A great team leader can be the difference between a high-performing team, and an ineffective one. Explore how you might become a better leader. Read More
Leadership & Management
19 min read | October 18, 2021

Power versus authority, why the difference matters

Power vs. authority — which is more effective in a workplace scenario? Learn the difference between power and authority and how to become a better leader. Read More
Leadership & Management
13 min read | September 24, 2022

Discover the benefits of leadership training: Why you need it

Learn the benefits of leadership training and how it’ll transform your workplace. Plus, read about the different approaches you can take to get your training. Read More
Leadership & Management
12 min read | March 11, 2021

Accountability vs. responsibility for leaders: back to the basics

Accountability vs. responsibility. Learn the difference between these characteristics, and how to develop them in the workplace. Read More
Leadership & Management
16 min read | September 7, 2021

Top-down vs. bottom-up management: What is the best fit?

What's the difference between top-down and bottom-up management? Here an insider's guide to the two leadership approaches and which one is right for you. Read More
Leadership & Management
18 min read | June 1, 2021

Power versus influence: How to build a legacy of leadership

Learn the difference between power and influence, what their sources are, when to use one or the other, and how mastering both can help you become a better leader. Read More

Similar Articles

Diversity & Inclusion 

Why women need a coach

Diversity & Inclusion 

Women at BetterUp: we need more women in tech

Research & Insights 

Work has changed in countless ways, but gender bias persists

Research & Insights 

World Mental Health Day highlights the pervasive, and personal, need for mental health support

Research & Insights 

What to get coaching on? Here’s what managers are saying

Research & Insights 

Women experience increased stress in male-dominated industries


Why women aren’t returning to the workplace

Diversity & Inclusion 

How performance reviews can reinforce gender bias: 5 steps to avoid it

Diversity & Inclusion 

Superhero-ines: 3 skills women use to conquer obstacles at work

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.