How Different Is The Female Entrepreneur’s Brain?

How Different Is

The Female Entrepreneur’s Brain?

Photo Courtesy of Huffington Post

I am originally from an idyllic horse community in a northwest suburb just outside of Chicago, Il. My formative years were spent at the barn riding horses and competitive show jumping on the A-circuit in the Midwest and east coast. After college, I was attracted to pursuing a career in the medical field and my path led me to graduate school at UCLA where I completed an MS in physiological science and an MS and Ph.D. in neurobiology.

My graduate work was focused on understanding mechanisms involved in a genetic form of Parkinson’s disease with my postgraduate training and subsequent research positions in the fields of neurology and psychiatry, studying the impact of concussions in professional NFL players. Along the way I was blessed to have a few unique opportunities in the world of fashion and entertainment, both as a model booking editorial and runway shows and being cast on the hit ABC television show The Mole. I have a profound sense of gratitude for these diverse experiences as they have shaped who I am today as an athlete, research scientist, author, speaker, and entrepreneur.

"I have a profound sense of gratitude for these diverse experiences as they have shaped who I am today as an athlete, research scientist, author, speaker, and entrepreneur." Photo Courtesy of Dr. Kristen Willeumier

As the former Director of Research for a Clinical Neuroimaging program, one of the most fascinating areas of research my colleagues and I have engaged in was investigating the differences between the male and female brain.   Our research involved using functional neuroimaging to measure cerebral blood flow and activity patterns in the brain.

Gender differences in our culture: The role of female entrepreneurs and the challenge of how to embrace the business-family balance

We intuitively know that men and women must have a different type of brain circuitry given that men have a natural drive to go out into the world and establish themselves professionally, with many enjoying the challenges they need to overcome on their ascent to success.

By understanding the gender-specific patterns in blood flow, it allows us to identify if gender plays a role in susceptibility to mood and psychiatric issues including anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder.

As a female entrepreneur, this work is relevant from the standpoint of having a deeper appreciation of the traits that are gender-specific based on brain function.  In addition, it can also serve to gain an understanding of how to integrate a balance of both to your advantage in a professional capacity.

Alternatively, women naturally gravitate towards the creation of a successful home life, which for many, involves having children, raising a family and caring for aging parents.

Thankfully, we live in a world where females have the opportunity to embrace both the traditional male role of attaining a successful professional career while simultaneously engaging in the more traditional female role of nurturing and caring for a family. The female entrepreneur is often caught in the middle of having to navigate the role of the business-family balance. Aside from the natural biological instinct to follow these established cultural norms, what role does our brain play in this equation? Do some people have the neural circuitry which allows them to attain more success in the professional world while others are more wired for raising a family? And what might the brain of a female entrepreneur look like?

Gender differences in brain function

In order to address the question of gender differences in brain function, we performed a functional neuroimaging study looking at these differences across 46,034 brain scans (1).  Our results indicate that women have significantly greater cerebral perfusion across the brain than men, with areas of elevated activity in regions associated with mood issues, including the basal ganglia (also known as our anxiety centers), and the deep limbic centers, which are associated with bonding and the processing of emotions.

Females also have increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is located in the front part of the brain and is associated with having good forethought, judgment, planning, self-control and executive function. In contrast, men tend to have more activity in the occipital lobes and cerebellum, areas located in the back part of the brain that is associated with visual processing and coordinated thought, speech, posture, and balance.

Traits associated with the female brain based on these findings: Cooperative, Intuitive, Empathetic, Collaborative, Rational judgment, Risk-averse

The results from our work indicate that females have heightened activity in the regions associated with emotional connectedness and therefore have a natural instinct towards collaboration, empathy, and cooperation. We are more intuitively connected and have a desire to nurture, instilling in us a strong sense of teamwork in the professional setting.   Given that we have greater activity in our prefrontal cortex, we have the ability to make more thoughtful, rational decisions, which makes us more risk-averse and less likely to make an impulsive decision.

This is an asset in running a business as having good judgment will prevent unnecessary trouble. Given that our emotional brain is more active, it means that we may also be more emotionally reactive in situations and may be more prone to mood disorders including anxiety and depression.

Traits associated with the male brain based on these findings: Competitive, Risk-taking, Ability to compartmentalize

Given that men have reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area that regulates self-control, as compared to females, this indicates that men have an inherent drive to compete (as this stimulates the release of pleasurable neurochemicals that activate this region of the brain) and can also lead them to make more impulsive decisions. This may explain why men have the drive to go out into the world and take risks, with less of a concern for the consequences.

"Given the results of our work, my impression is that the successful female entrepreneur will possess the traits observed in the male and female brain." Photo Courtesy of Dr. Kristen Willeumier

It is also why men are more susceptible to having externalizing disorders such as attention deficit disorder. In addition, given that the emotional centers of the male brain are not as highly active as the females, they are less likely to be emotionally reactive, and they will have a less of a need for cooperation as women might have. This can serve to propel them to leadership positions, as the drive to go out and conquer is easier to do when you are less concerned about the group dynamic. Men are also able to more easily compartmentalize issues, not allowing their emotions impact their decisions.

The female entrepreneur, a blend of both? 

Given the results of our work, my impression is that the successful female entrepreneur will possess the traits observed in the male and female brain.  The female entrepreneur that enjoys taking risks and competing in a male-dominated world may indicate that the perfusion pattern of her prefrontal cortex may be more consistent with what we observe in the male brain.  This allows her to be a courageous, capable leader, while also possessing the ability to foster a strong sense of teamwork given her natural drive towards collaboration. This is also why female entrepreneurs may thrive when working with mentors, as this complements the need for support, bonding, and partnership that is so inherent in our nature. Contemporary women who embody these traits include Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres and Maria Shriver, who each have the strength to stand on their own as leaders and visionaries, a male trait, yet embody the ability to catalyze the masses to listen to their message through connectedness and collaboration, a female trait.

By understanding gender differences in brain function, female entrepreneurs can capitalize on their strengths which include being highly intuitive, collaborative, empathetic, risk-averse and using sound judgment to achieve success. One important caveat to include in this discussion is that every brain is unique, and while there are generalizations that can be made about the average male and female brain, what makes each of us an individual is our ability to take the strengths of our neurobiology and use it in a proactive way to access our greatest potential.

If you would like to read the original manuscript “Gender-Based Cerebral Perfusion Differences in 46,034 Functional Neuroimaging Scans” published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease you can go to www.drwilleumier.com and locate it in the Research Articles section.

Dr. Kristen Willeumier

No one thinks that brains are sexier than Dr. Kristen Willeumier – a 6’1, blond-haired, former reality television contestant turned internationally-acclaimed neuroscientist. She is also an engaging personality who wants to prove that female scientists don’t have to fit a certain mold.

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