Thursday, February 19, 2009

Empathy is a Great Strength in Women - But it Costs Money

Women, as a rule, are more empathetic than men. This is a robust finding, which even researchers who didn't believe it -- didn't want to believe it -- have been convinced by. It is a very good thing for human beings, especially for mothers dealing with children who can't explain themselves very well. Empathy helps you read other people's emotions and understand their motives.

High-powered careers are stressful. They take long hours, often require frequent travel and even household moves, and usually entail continuous competition with other people. Mothers in high-powered careers are likely to feel the stress that their jobs cause to other people - especially their children. Mothers' empathy is a very good thing. But it does mean that mothers are more likely to find their family's pain more painful than fathers do. They are also more likely to feel more stress themselves, which they transfer to others in their families. Feeling others' distress is not just social conditioning, it is a biological strength of women.

The cost of empathy, though, is that women are more likely to leave high-stress jobs if they can for the benefit of their families. They calculate that the greater money, power, and status that they and their families might get is not worth the greater distress to the family. This hurts them more than it does men. It is not that men are oblivious, it is that men are generally built differently. They don't feel as much stress, so they don't pass on as much stress. For them, a stressful job is a gift to their families, which they endure for the good of others. For women, a stressful job is a cost to their families, which they leave for the good of others if they can.

As a result, empathetic women are less likely to be found in the most stressful jobs -- which also tend to be the highest paying and highest status jobs. Empathy is a great good for human society. But it can cost money.


Michael Kruse said...

Another finding I heard sometime back was on negotiation in the workplace based on this empathy difference. Women are generally more perceptive than men at picking up on hidden clues about what others were thinking and feeling, but less adept at concealing their own thoughts and feelings. Men are generally less perceptive about others but better at concealing their own thoughts and feelings.

As a crass fictional image from Star Trek, think Captain Picard and Counselor Troy. :-)

Anonymous said...

News flash!World ends tomorrow... Women and children suffer most.