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Mental Toughness: Which Gender has the Advantage?

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the toughest of them all… is it men or is it women?”

At first glance, this seems about as “scientific” of an approach as any to try to answer this complicated question. But then I read Alison Beard’s article in the Harvard Business Review about actual research that examined this topic and concluded that women respond better than men to competitive pressure. The research was conducted by Dr. Alex Krumer, post-doctoral fellow at the Swiss Institute for Empirical Economic Research (SEW) in the University of St. Gallen.

You may be thinking, How on earth did they measure that in the workplace? The short answer is, they didn’t.

Krumer and his research team examined 8,200 Grand Slam tennis matches to analyze gender differences in how often the player serving the ball “choked” under pressure. According to Beard, Krumer’s team found that male performance in the game deteriorated more than the women’s when the game was at a critical juncture.

The article addresses several potential confounding variables and is forthcoming about the generalizability – or potential lack thereof – of the findings from the world of professional sports to a simply professional environment.

Yet, the premise is an interesting one and the methodology appears sound. Prior to this research, Beard suggests that evidence on gender, pressure and performance was limited and mixed, either showing no differences by gender or advantages for one gender or the other in specific environments.

So, where does that leave us?

Although I seldom like to reduce anything down to categorical differences or, worse, stereotypes, (e.g., men do this and women do that), I do think this research’s findings are important for a number of reasons. At a minimum, it opens the door for additional research, to try to replicate the findings in a business/ workplace context.

But more importantly, it sheds a light on the need to revisit conversations about how gender may “play out” differently for each person in terms of his or her experiences within a given workplace. Conversations should begin with open-ended questions if learning – and ultimately some form of social change – can occur.

For example:

  • If women do in fact respond better than men, on average, to competitive pressure, how do we get more women into boardrooms?
  • From a leadership development standpoint, if this finding holds true, what are the implications for the debate about whether leaders are “made or born?”
  • If women may be, on average, physically weaker than men (a topic often discussed in military contexts), how might mental toughness compensate for, or even supersede, physical ability in some job contexts?
  • How might organizations leverage this line of research to better screen for “mental toughness” in their hiring or succession planning strategies?

This research may raise more questions than it answers, but the next time the topic of women being “the weaker or more emotional sex” is raised, women can at least point to this article to redirect the conversation to a more data-driven discussion.

Rather than feeling threatened by these findings, I’d like to believe organizations and their leaders would want to figure out how to harness and leverage this particular strength.

Rebekah Cardenas, Ph.D., is vice president of business development and assessment solutions at EASI•Consult®. EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult,  visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call (800) 922-EASI.

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