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Are women more emotionally intelligent than men?

Are women more emotionally intelligent than men?

Are women more emotionally intelligent than men?

In July of 2014, a federal report in Canada called for corporate boards and other entities to aim for 30 percent female membership in the next five years (Flavelle, 2014). This report stopped short of setting quotas, but the intent was clear. In Canada, as in the US, the percentage of women on corporate boards and in other positions of power remains at less than 17%.

In addition to the question of equity, some research suggests that companies with a higher percentage of women at the top outperform companies with fewer women. McKinsey and Company (Barsh and Lee, 2011) found that companies with three or more women in top positions measured higher in their assessment of organizational health such as external orientation, coordination and control.

These figures correspond to higher financial performance. A Catalyst report focusing primarily on boards also reported higher financial returns for companies with higher percentages of women (Taylor, 2012).

Many attribute these findings to differences in emotional intelligence (EI) between men and women. Some go so far as to suggest that women are better leaders. 

At the risk of offending one gender or the other, I want to take a closer look at the levels and types of EI men and women possess.

The good news is that both men and women score just about the same on measures of emotional intelligence. The not-so-good news is that women and men have significantly dissimilar scores in specific areas of EI.

According to research from Dickau and Schipper (1997) using the Emotional Quotient Inventory*, women tend to score higher in areas of interpersonal EQ, which includes empathy, relationships and social responsibility. On average, men score higher in areas of intrapersonal EQ that includes self-regard, self-reliance and coping with stress.

New Leader's Circle, Leadership OptionsThis seems to indicate that women are better at social awareness, social action and interpersonal relationships, and men are better at promoting themselves and their vision while handling the stresses of the job. The findings are not as clear cut as this may indicate, but generally men and women score differently on measures of EI.

There can be many reasons for these reported differences (Sanchez-Nunez, Fernandez-Berrocal, et al, 2008). They range from how children are enculturated to the problems of self-reporting EQ tests. Mo Costandi (2013) presents a detailed explanation of the differences in brain composition, biological sex and socialization, which may contribute to these differences. He argues that we cannot take these findings as irreversible, and we should not engage in stereotyping. Individuals are different and they can change.

Whatever the causes or the implications, we need to put this information into perspective and use it to benefit the greatest number of people. How do we as leaders, women, men, executives, policy makers or whatever, use this information? How do we look at these differences in a way that reaches beyond the numbers? I offer below a few suggestions:

  • Recognize our own biases. When we make assumptions about individuals, ask if our assumptions are based on fact or conjecture.  
  • Look at and present all the facts, not just those that support a specific position or point of view. Consider alternative viewpoints before making a declaration or a decision.
  • To avoid stereotypes, stay current with research findings, but recognize that all individuals in a group vary significantly from the average of a group. Each finding is just one more piece of information to consider. 
  • Recognize when certain traits are necessary. In making decisions about whom to hire or where to apply for positions, look first at what skills are necessary to be successful in a particular organization or culture. Then look at who is most capable of meeting the challenges that position presents. Sometimes it is a man; sometimes it is a woman. Most often it has nothing to do with gender. 
  • Promote diversity so that all can benefit from difference skills and perspectives. A variety of opinions and perspectives makes an organization or group stronger. The challenge is to listen and to value those differences. 
  • Recognize, enjoy and/or learn to tolerate the differences. Find the commonalities. It’s not always a competition. Sometimes it’s just a conversation.

As individuals, it is important to recognize our own strengths and developmental areas and continue to grow. This is the challenge for everyone who wants to make a difference. These findings offer some valuable opportunities for personal reflection. 

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*The EI Consortium evaluated many tests designed to measure areas of emotional competence. One of the few they selected as having a substantial body of research supporting its validity and reliability was the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i). For a greater understanding of the Bar-on model and the inventory, click here.


Comments (2)

  1. Mike Lehr

    Great question, Lyn. The answer really depends on how you define empathy.

    Since the mid-90’s when Goleman published his concept of EI and popularized it, advancement in technology and research methodologies have added more mystery to empathy than clarification. Now, you can find at least three different forms of empathy, cognitive (basis for Goleman’s concept of EI), emotional and social.

    Since a high EI doesn’t necessarily mean you are sensitive, passionate or caring, a psychopath could have a higher EI than a very sensitive person. In fact, some psychopaths can have high levels of cognitive empathy as the neuroscientist James Fallon demonstrated on Anderson Cooper.

    Since research shows more psychopaths are men than women (by a 3 to 1 margin), if we define empathy more cognitively, men could actually be more empathetic than women, thus possibly giving them a higher EI than women.

    If we define empathy more emotionally or socially, and research showing women to be more sensitive to the well-being of others is correct, then it’s quite possible women will score higher in EI because that sensitivity has been shown to make teams smarter.

    Of course, EI isn’t just about empathy, but it does play a major role in trying to understand whether the concept of EI we’re using is more cognitively, emotionally or socially based.

    Still, we need to remember that there is no consensus on empathy, what it is, how it works, etc. The more we research it the more of a mystery it becomes and the more we discover different types of empathy.

    Thank you for asking a very enlightening question.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Mike, Thanks for your very enlightening comments. I am glad you mentioned the topic of empathy in regard to psychopaths. I read an interesting article about that recently called the Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, which gave me much food for thought. Just as Howard Gardner pointed out with IQ, there are many subsets of EQ. Before delving into EI more deeply, my definition had much more to do with understanding self and having strong relationships. However, I am learning that assertiveness, self-regard and self expression are part of it as well. Is that because I am female?
      I don’t want to say that either gender has a greater supply of EQ. I have seen many men I believe are incredibly gifted in the relationship and empathy areas just as I have seen many women who are gifted in the areas of assertiveness and self-regard. I believe the real value of this discussion is to consider strengths and developmental areas while recognizing that many questions are left unanswered.

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