Dr. Sheena Iyengar is a true believer in mind over matter.
And she knows this through personal experience: she is legally blind. She lost her vision permanently due to retinitis pigmentosa – a rare degenerative eye disease – when she was still very young.
Yet, this disability did not slow her down. Iyengar, who has earned a PhD from Stanford University, is now one of the most respected psychologist in the U.S. The S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University and world expert on choice is well known for her award-winning book The Art of Choosing.
Iyengar was amongst the guest speakers who came to talk about the “transformative power of education” on the occasion of the Asian University for Women’s seventh annual scholarship fundraising event (AUW) in Tokyo last March.
Drawing from years of meticulous data collection, Iyengar’s primary research explores the power of choice, the factors that influence our decision-making process and how we can improve the outcomes.
Her work is particulary relevant in light of Japan’s attempts to foster a more gender-balanced society and provides insight, underpinned by scientific evidence, into the root causes of gender biases and stereotypes.
A five-part lecture series based on her book was broadcast on the NHK TV program, Hakunetsu Kyoushitsu, (Passionate Classroom), in 2011.
DIFFERENT BRAINS, DIFFERENT SKILLS
The Toronto-born professor first spoke about the subtle biological differences that set men and women apart, and explained how these relate to differences in skill sets. She then presented the audience with a set of unlabeled images depicting the neural connections in two distinct human brains. “Which would you say is that of the woman?” she prompted. The audience correctly responded, identifying the brain whose connections ran predominantly across the two hemispheres as that of the female.
When asked how they had arrived at that conclusion, most answered: “Because women are better at multitasking;” a common assumption, according to Iyengar. “Even though men and women are convinced that women are doing better at it, they aren’t – they simply do more of it.”
More connections going across the lobes allows for greater skill in synthesizing, connecting sequential and analytical reason – nothing to do with multitasking.
Men, she explained, have more neural connections within each specific lobe. “When you have more connections within a lobe, perceptual experience and action become stronger.” In terms of our basic skill sets, this indicates a negligible difference between male and female performance. “Men absolutely dominate when it comes to hand-eye coordination,” said Iyengar. “They are better at spatial tasks that involve muscle control: Ball. Hit. They have a clear advantage. Women, in contrast, tend to be better at tasks involving memory and intuition.”
In a study she conducted in the 70’s, Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), observed how teachers interacted with boys and girls.“She wanted to find out whether gender differences were based on biology or the way students socialize,” said Iyengar. What Dweck found was that boys, who are often viewed as more hyperactive and [disruptive], were repeatedly scolded for not concentrating or working hard enough.
The study also revealed that girls, who are generally perceived as neater, more diligent, organized, and conscientious, were often conditioned into thinking it was “normal” for them not to excel in certain areas of study traditionally considered men’s disciplines. “When they received feedback from the teacher,” Iyengar explained, “it was directly about their performance. They were told things like: ‘You’re not doing so well but this isn’t your thing anyway.’ So girls’ performance in certain subjects – particularly math – started to decline by grade seven because they’d received those types of messages.”
A more recent study conducted by Iyengar on two groups of college students points towards similar conclusions. “Students were told they were about to take a very hard math test,” she recounted. “Half of them were told that, historically, gender differences had been found on this test. The other half was told the opposite. Up until that point, these men and women had performed comparably on the S.A.T. – a standardized college test. However, what we observed with our study was that if students were given certain messages prior to taking the test, they accommodated these messages.”
While these findings may explain why the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) persists, Iyengar believes that performance has less to do with gender or biology, and more to do with mindset. “The differences seen in performance,” she said, “are either something we imagine because of belief systems, or something we create by the messages we give.”
FIXED VS GROWTH MINDSET
The terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” were originally coined by Dweck as a way to explain how individuals either see the root cause of failure as an intrinsic – and thus immutable – weakness in their innate abilities to perform a task, or as an opportunity to improve one’s basic abilities through dedication and hard work.
In her book, she writes that “mindset can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.” For the fixed mindset, however, getting rid of in-built biases about their own ability to succeed is no mean feat.“When writing a test,” Iyengar gave as an example, “as the questions get harder, if a person with a fixed mindset is not doing well at it, it only gets worse because they believe they are inherently not good at it.”
Yet, reprogramming your mind for success isn’t just a figment of some science fiction. Recent developments in neuroplasticity have shown that the human brain is in fact quite malleable. According to mindsetworks.com, neural connectivity can be increased and improved “by actions we take, such as using good strategies, asking questions, practicing, and following good nutrition and sleep habits […].”
POSITIVE ECONOMIC IMPACT
Research shows that bringing more women into the workforce and getting more women on company boards would not only help level the playing field, it would also greatly benefit companies and society.
Iyengar, who studied the effects of “women getting educated and entering the workforce,” provided a few statistics to support this. Having a woman on your company’s board, she argued, increases performance by 26%, while a female director on the board reduces “the likelihood of that company going bankrupt” by 23%. Additionally, higher female representation would increase the return on equity by 56%, return on investment by 66%, and return on sales by 42%.
When comparing leadership styles, Iyengar said that females were more likely to reward good performance than men. Also, when making decisions, they considered the perspectives of more stakeholders, which led to better decision-making.
“So, what stops us from having women go to work?” Iyengar asked the audience. “Tradition. And what does tradition tells us? That it’s important to have women stay at home and have children. Does it make sense to frame it in that way for women or even for society as a whole? Does tradition have any basis against scientific evidence?”
For Iyengar, bringing more women in the workplace is not so much about gender than it is about increasing company performance. “Women are not better than men,” she said. “They see the world differently and when you bring people together who’ll see the world differently, and have them engage in joint problem solving, their performance as a collective will inevitably go up.”
Having women in the workforce also has positive effects on a country’s GDP. “A study done by McKinsey & Company showed that if you were to equalize the gender ratio in the workforce across developed nations around the world, the GDP would go up by 26%,” said Iyengar.
In Japan, as demonstrated by Kathy Matsui in her previous reports, removing the gender gap would translate into an increase of the Japanese GDP by an estimated 13%.
For Iyengar, the power of choice comes from our ability to create, and that comes from education.“Education empowers us to make our own life choices. It helps [us] generate and evaluate options and take action.”