On Oct. 17, Valerie Alexander gave a lecture called “How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having ‘Female Brains’)” in the Chapman Auditorium. Alexander graduated from Trinity in 1990 and came back to share her advice with women at Trinity.
Alexander’s lecture revolved around the differences between men and women in the workforce and how women can use their understandings of those differences to be successful. The title, however, was off-putting for some students.
“I saw the lecture in the LeeRoy newsletter. Initially, it rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed to be an opposing idea of how feminism is usually talked about,” said Alexandria Byrd, junior.
Alexander recognized this reaction in the beginning of her presentation. However, she defended it with the explanation of how the idea of a gendered brain was formed.
“I know that title offends some people. I know it makes some people downright angry,” Alexander said.
Alexander explained how understanding the differences between the male and female brain will allow women to be more successful because they will be able to use that knowledge to their advantages. She began her explanation by explaining the differences between men and women in the Prehistoric Era.
“In order for your tribe to survive in the biological sense, it must be able to reproduce itself. The tribes that survived were the tribes that figured out to not let the women die,” Alexander said.
Alexander explained further that the women were protected in order to continue to produce offspring. Because of this, men did the dangerous tasks and women stayed at home.
“The men went off and did all the activities that cause instant death. They hunted for meat and they protected the cave. The women did everything else,” Alexander said.
Eventually, these opposing activities led to differences in thought process. Because the men had to hunt, they needed to be able to think more quickly. Because the women did everything for the home, they needed to be able to multitask.
“Over the course of two million years, our brains evolved with different sets of instincts. This is a highly controversial topic, and the reason it is a highly controversial topic is because this fact was used against women for so long by the preeminent researchers of evolutionary biology,” Alexander said.
After solidifying the differences between male and female instincts, Alexander discussed the birth of commerce from combat and why it is such an aggressive business.
“Since men were the only ones leaving the caves, men were only encountering other men. So all systems of commerce were built around those male instincts of aggression and competition and risk and quick decision-making. Those same traits remained what was most highly rewarded,” Alexander said.
Alexander went on to answer the question of whether or not the system would be the same if women had designed it.
“We actually have a system that was designed by women: early-childhood education. Because the United States was the first country to provide free education to the entire population regardless of income, it was considered very low-level work,” Alexander said.
However, she noted how early-childhood education does not display the traits of men, but rather the traits of women. The grades K-8 reward cooperation over aggression and analysis over rash decision-making.
“All those instinctively female traits are what’s rewarded in the system that was designed by women. I believe that is the reason little boys struggle so much more in grades K-8 than little girls. And yet, sometime between high school and the workplace, it makes a giant flip, and women struggle so much more to succeed,” Alexander said.
Alexander blames this leap on the tendency of the system to reward the traits possessed by males. Despite the evidence, people do not believe there is a difference in the brains.
“Luckily, there has been a giant change in this area of research, and that is the invention of fMRI, functional MRI. This technology is just now being used to examine these questions. It’s been around for the last 20 years, but we’ve only been able to look at gender differences in the past 10,” Alexander said.
Alexander went on to explain how a woman must mimic the traits of men while also maintaining her own traits in order to be successful in the workplace. A woman must not be too aggressive and must not be too forward.
“It’s a delicate balance, and it’s one many, many women experience in the workplace. It’s changing, but it is not changing that rapidly,” Alexander said.
Alexander explained how, just 20 years ago, there were no female Fortune 500 CEOs, and how now, the group is five percent female. This is why Alexander believes women need to be more aware of the traits that are being rewarded in the workplace so they can become successful.
“I am not saying ‘behave like men.’ Do not give up the value you bring to the workplace by being a woman. Figure out what traits get rewarded and how you can display those traits,” Alexander said.
Alexander closed her lecture with five pieces of advice for the women in the audience.
“Don’t be afraid to be wrong; risk is a highly rewarded trait. Network, mentor, sponsor and help each other out. Don’t denigrate other women. Don’t ‘F’ your boss. Remind yourself every day how valuable you are,” Alexander said.
For some students, the lecture resonated deeply because they understood how different the treatment of women can be compared to that of men in the workforce.
“I’m a chem major, so I know women in sciences have a hard time, but the number of women in science has been increasing. Hopefully those struggles are gone by the time I get a job,” said Meagan Pollock, senior.
All in attendance left with the same message of how to be successful in the workforce. Alexander stated her views on the treatment of women and provided the advice to achieve success despite it.