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Empathy isn’t women’s responsibility alone

While it’s tempting for some to believe that women have this super skill in higher levels than men, it isn’t true. On International Women's Day, let's reframe this expectation

Extending empathy is shared responsibility, whether at home or at the workplace
Extending empathy is shared responsibility, whether at home or at the workplace (iStock)

As COVID-19 continues to affect our lives we have already seen that its impact, and its economic fallout, have had a far more regressive effect on women than our male counterparts. According to Mckinsey women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the Covid crisis than men’s jobs, and whilst women make up 39% of global employment they account for 54% of overall job losses. Are companies and leadership teams showing enough empathy to female employees as we balance it all? And does empathy appear in equal measure to both men and women as we face continued turmoil globally?

In the last 16 months empathy has become a more and more familiar term. The increase in shared public understanding that empathy has an impact on our social and emotional health is far more recognized today. There is a plethora of data to show that increased empathy is correlated with prosocial behavior and altruism, as well as reducing antisocial and aggressive behavior. Whilst tempting for some to believe that women might have this super skill in higher levels than men, it isn’t true. Our need to empathise with each other socially, at home and at work is a shared responsibility that we all have to improve our relationships and social cohesion at large. So, whether your boss, friend or family member is male or female, more empathy is a change mechanism fully within their grasp.

So what is empathy?

The ability to connect empathically with others is innate to all human beings. Our brains work naturally to allow us to understand the realities of others so that we can mutually thrive. It’s our evolutionary ability to see the world from the viewpoint of another and to recognize that how they see the world is unique to our own viewpoint. It is the ability to understand another without judgement.

There is still a common misconception that people are born with differing levels of empathic ‘ability.’ Research has now shown however that empathy is a skill that we can all hone and refine. We can choose to empathise. We can learn to empathise. Whilst recognising that this is a critical skillset that we are all born with, the debate still flies rife, do women have more of it than men?

Men may be from Mars while women are from Venus, but our mutual empathy is from our brains.

Neurologically we are all born with a very similar ability to empathise but our choice to use this ability is what varies greatly. Whilst research results do differ, and are still in their infancy, observed gender differences have been found to be more likely to be due to cultural expectations of gender roles as well as males’ overall reluctance to report empathy.

Research in 2018 showed that although women, on average, do score, higher in EQ tests than men, there doesn’t appear to be a genetic basis for those differences. So why might we see women, and female leaders in general, still behaving differently when it comes to understanding, as the pandemic continues to rock our world?

Our hormones may make a difference. "Given the biological differences between men and women—for example hormones and hormone levels— it could be possible that some of these hormones that are present in greater levels in women can drive some of the higher empathetic scores," Varun Warrior, lead author of the 2018 study said. It is possible, therefore, that female hormones make women more prone to empathise, connect and listen with care to those around us. Note that it is ‘prone to’ versus ‘able to.’

Longstanding social expectations are a reality. We can link generational social and cultural impacts on women’s decision to activate their empathy. In general, socially nurturing roles have been placed on and around women and girls for decades, and there is a high likelihood that this learned awareness and shared skillset impacts women’s enthusiasm for and connection to empathy.

Women score higher on coaching and mentoring in many academic studies and we can therefore assume that they are more prone to activating empathy as an instinctive path to driving success. Naturally connecting with their audiences and peers in a way that nurtures growth is an approach that, whilst not exclusive to women, has been seen to score more highly, more often, in female research participants.

What we do know with certainty, as we review the world around us, is that declining levels of empathy are across all of society and require urgent change. We are seeing a 30-year decline in our empathy levels globally, and the ‘Empathy Gap’ is ever widening. The social impact is vast, causing an array of social issues from loneliness to anxiety, depression and burnout. In this scenario, 50% of us will not be able to make the changes our world needs, but 100% of us can.

So how might we make more empathy, more often, a reality?

Stop listening to form an answer and start listening to truly understand what is being said, both verbally and via the person’s body language. The consciousness of this is a huge step towards reducing the gap between “you and me” and creating far more “us.”

Empathy is instinctive once you choose to do so. Due to our neurobiology, once you send the instruction to your brain to activate the neurons responsible for empathising with those around you, this will become an increasingly natural response. Make the choice to empathise and you are taking a first critical step.

Body language can fill many of the connectivity gaps we see at home and work today. Consider eye contact, the direction of your shoulders (facing your audience) and leaning in as key pillars of showing empathy. When people feel ‘seen’ by your approach to them they almost instantly share more deeply and with more trust.

Make sure people know you hear them. Consider the ‘repeat and rephrase’ method whereby you repeat back to people what they have said to ensure you are on the same page. Phrases such as “what I am hearing you say is ‘this’, am I right?” give people the reassurance that you are hearing them.

Empathy is a value that matters to all of us and without this value our society suffers. With our continued anxiety-inducing health threat, economic uncertainty and societal unrest, it’s going to take all of us taking concrete action together; not as men or as women, but as brothers and sisters aligned.

Mimi Nicklin is the author of Softening the Edge—Empathy: How Humanity's Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing Our World

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