There's no such thing as women's strengths
Updated: Nov 17
I've had rants before. About how - especially around International Women's Day - women would open up their drawer to pull out a handful of obsolete and cheesy 'inspiring' quotes and would bombard the world with them. We would be told to 'use our super powers', or, worse, our 'divine powers'. It would promise how men would be 'scared' of us because of these special powers.
Now, I don't know about you, but it annoys me. Not only because I appear to have missed the boat altogether when they were handing out these 'divine' powers (I was probably cleaning my bathroom, or - you know - working). But mainly because I'm not a great believer in them.
Now, don't get me wrong. I think you're all pretty special. In fact I think every single one of you is unique. With your own strengths, your own personalities, your own unique set of skills and your own mind.
But posts like that, and articles with titles like '21 strengths of women that should be celebrated more' - where the premise is that women are 'natural born nurturers', have a 'special talent' for being able to empathise with others and are great multi-taskers - never really sat well with me.
So I thought I'd investigate. To see if I'm the only one who's missed out on those 'special powers', or if there is something else going on.
Why strengths are important
First of all, I think strengths are really important. Going through school, and some of us through university, even at work, a lot is being made of your weaknesses. Many a performance review is focused on what you can do better, how to bring your weaknesses in line. How to 'fix' you.
Psychology as a field until fairly recently was also focusing on fixing what was broken, or different. So, if you were depressed, or anxious, psychologists would be focusing on how to bring you back to neutral.
Positive psychology is a relatively new field and only developed at the end of the 1990s. It focused not on how to get people fixed. Instead it focused on understanding how people thrive. How people went from neutral to happy.
As it turns out you are happiest when you are using your strengths.
What are strengths
During the studies into what makes people thrive it was found that there were 24 universal strengths. Every individual has a unique combination of signature strengths. It was found that the more you used those strengths in your life and work the happier you were, the better your well-being.
With 24 character strengths there are more possible combinations of strengths than there are people on the planet - allegedly (I haven't tested this, my maths is at best rusty. I'm good with that).
Differences between men and women
With so many possible different combinations I found it very hard to believe that it would turn out that women would 'typically' or even 'naturally' have more of one strength than others. (And no, I'm not talking about 'divine powers'. I don't know what they are, and don't feel equipped - although very much tempted! - to comment).
So I did a bit of research and found the following:
Much has been made of the differences between male and female brains. But what it comes down to is this: five ounces.
Female brains are five ounces lighter than male brains. On average. For my metric friends, that's 142 grams. There is no difference between male and female brains if you're talking about a smaller man, or when there is a different ratio between grey and white matter and other complicated brain terms.
Gina Rippon's book The Gendered Brain is high on my To Read list, but I did read Cornelia Delusions of Gender with the same message.
Findings in both books are the same: in principle there is no difference between male and female brains. Like the heart and the stomach they are un-gendered.
But, as we know, brains fire off electrical impulses, based on your experiences. Which means that a gendered world and culture has got an enormous influence on female and male brains. From the moment your auntie coos 'how pretty you are' over the side of the push chair, or dads tell boys to 'toughen up', brains will be fired different ways. Different neural pathways are formed, which might go a long way to explaining differences in behaviour and strengths.
OK then, so if it's not the brain that's different what makes up for why women and men are perceived to be different?
It is personality?
Personality studies often focus on The Big Five, the five personality traits that make up your personality: neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion and openness.
When comparing the survey scores for these tests it became clear that there are gender differences, in the traits of neuroticism, agreeableness and extroversion.
The interesting findings were found when looking deeper into these traits. For neuroticism it was found that women scored higher on the aspect of Withdrawal - which is in line with the finding that women are more often diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It was also found that there wasn't such a big difference when it came to Volatility as men were just as often to be found irritable and angry (albeit with differences in different ethnic groups).
Similarly for Agreeableness. Women were found to be more agreeable, or in other words, to score higher for Compassion and Politeness. Women, it was explained, may be more motivated than men to maintain social and emotional bonds by enacting more agreeable traits.
Anyway, in practical terms, when you google 'Big Five' you will be able to do an online free test to find out about your personality. You fill out, there and then, what sentences are most applicable to you.
What that means is that it is highly subjective, and can change from day to day (I will be a whole lot less agreeable if I have just had a massive argument with my partner!).
Also, I'd argue that your personality is also shaped by the world around you. You might think that you're pretty agreeable (or not) based on the world around you. On what is expected of you. On how you're best able to make your way in the world. Is that your personality? I'd be inclined to be reasonably sceptical.
Which leads us to strengths.
Now strengths are interesting. You see - and yes, I'm going off on a tangent here - I used to be really good at planning. No, correction, I AM really good at planning. I used to work in projects, I've had to be.
Does that mean that planning is a strength? Not necessarily.
Gay Hendricks in his book The Big Leap talks about your Zone of Genius and your Zone of Excellence.
Planning clearly was in my Zone of Excellence. I was good at it. It appealed to my logical, left-brain thinking side.
Did I like it? Nope. A necessary evil is what I used to call it (no, let's not kid myself, I still call it that).
What then is?
As I explained above your natural strengths (or Signature Strengths) are YOUR unique combination of strengths. Those things that - if you incorporate more and more of them in your life and work - help you thrive.
So, is there a difference between men and women? Nope. Overall there is not a significant difference between men and women when it comes to strengths.
However, there are some small differences: appreciation of beauty and excellence, kindness, love and gratitude. Interestingly they are all to do with interconnectedness with others, something that women have (had to) create more of than men.
My conclusion (if that wasn't already abundantly clear)? I believe men and women are born similar. I understand their brains are similar, but that their brains, personalities and as a result their strengths are shaped by their circumstances, where they live, how biased and discriminatory their surroundings are, how free they feel.
I believe women historically have had to forge more social bonds (remember Margaret Atwood's quote: 'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.') I believe that this and discrimination and bias in society is shaping the differences between men and women.
I think that it is important for you to find out what it is that you are unique in. What your strengths are.
As I said before, with 24 character strengths there are as many combinations as there are people on earth. No one is like you, woman or man.
Tineke Tammes is an ICF credentialed Career Coach, who supports professional women in making successful transitions to careers of Freedom, Flexibility and Fulfilment! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler. Oh, and she knows a bit about change management too.
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