They say empathy is a woman’s superpower – our ability to recognise what another person is thinking intuitively and to respond appropriately is one seldom found in men. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, however, it’s that empathy is needed now more than ever. Best-selling author Mimi Nicklin tells us how we can be more empathetic in 2021.
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 management consultants McKinsey & Company, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s, and while women make up 39 per cent of global employment, they account for 54 per cent of overall job losses. Are companies and leadership teams showing enough empathy to female employees as we try to balance it all? And is empathy extended in equal measure to both males and females as we face continued turmoil globally? In the last 16 months, empathy has been the word on everyone’s lips. The increase in shared public understanding that empathy has an impact on our social and emotional health is far more recognised today, and there is a plethora of data to show that increased empathy is associated with prosocial behaviour and altruism, as well as reducing antisocial and aggressive behaviour. While it’s tempting for some to believe that women possess this super skill to a greater degree than men, it simply isn’t true. Our need to empathise with each other socially, at home, and at work, is a shared responsibility – we all have to improve our relationships and social cohesion at large. So, whether your boss, friend or family member is male or female, having more empathy is a quality that’s within their grasp.
So what exactly is empathy? It’s the ability to connect and relate to others, and 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 recognise that how they see the world is unique to their 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’, however, research has now shown it’s actually a skill we can all hone and refine. We can choose to empathise. We can learn to empathise. While recognising that this is a critical skill set that we are all born with, the debate still rages on, do women have more of it than men? Simply put, no. Men may be from Mars while women are from Venus, but our mutual empathy is from our brains. We are all born with a very similar ability to empathise, but our choice to use this ability is what varies greatly. Although 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.
What we do know with certainty, as we review the world around us, is that declining levels of empathy are evident across all of society and need to be addressed urgently. We are seeing a 30-year decline in our empathy levels globally, and the ‘empathy gap’ is ever widening. The impact is vast, causing an array of social issues from loneliness, to anxiety, depression and burnout. Half of us will not be enough to make the changes our world needs; it needs all of us. Empathy matters to everyone, and without it 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.
Why Are Women More Empathetic?
Research has shown that although women, on average, do score higher in emotional intelligence tests than men, there doesn’t appear to be a genetic basis for this difference. 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. Varun Warrier, the lead author of a study on empathy, stated: “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. It is possible, therefore, that female hormones make women more prone to empathise, connect and listen with care to those around us.” Note here that Warrier says ‘prone to’ not ‘able to.’
Longstanding social expectations are a reality. We can link generational social and cultural impacts on a woman’s decision to activate her 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 skill set impacts women’s enthusiasm and connection to empathy. Women score higher on coaching and mentoring in many academic studies. We can therefore infer 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, while not exclusive to women, has been seen to score more highly and more often in female research participants.
How Can We Make More Empathy, More Often, A Reality?
1. Stop listening just to be able to form an answer, and instead 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’.
2. Empathy is instinctive once you allow it to be. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Mimi Nicklin is the author of Softening the Edge – a book on empathy and how humanity’s oldest leadership trait is changing our world. Purchase it here.