Can Men Be As Empathetic as Women? Research Says Yes
Male and female brains may operate in fundamentally different ways, or “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Men struggle to be empathic because they analyze, whereas women empathize. Women are more emotionally inclined than men, hence they are better at empathizing.
This is more fiction than fact.
Though popular psychology and the media have been quick to attribute specific aspects of brain anatomy and function as depending on gender, science doesn’t support this distinction. Our brains are a mosaic of male and female qualities, according to a study by Daphna Joel and colleagues published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of more than 1,400 brains, and there is no such thing as a male or female brain.
People with brains have spent decades in civilizations that treated men and women differently and provided them with distinct chances and experiences. As evidenced by the numerous findings in the field of neuroplasticity, experiences alter the structure and operation of the brain.
We are all familiar with the cliché that women are more adept than men at understanding the perspectives, suffering, and compassion of others. Men’s and women’s surveys indicate that there is some validity to the presumption. It’s unclear, though, whether women’s empathy is a product of nature or nurture.
According to some studies, women’s brains are more likely than men’s to exhibit signs of empathy. According to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, women are more likely than men to unintentionally mimic the emotional expressions of others. This behaviour is thought to be a result of the brain’s “mirror neurons,” which are activated when a person performs an action and witnesses another person performing the same action. However, no study has compared the occurrence or level of mirror neuron activity in the two sexes.
According to other studies, men’s brains are more likely than women’s to choose logic above empathy. For instance, a 2003 study published in the journal Neuroreport discovered that women’s brain activity revealed they were genuinely experiencing the emotions they observed when they were asked to name other people’s emotions. Men, on the other hand, displayed activity in brain areas linked to rational analysis, suggesting they were taking a more objective approach and just identifying the feelings and wondering if they had seen them before.
Despite this, studies have found no persistent differences between men and women in their capacity to recognize their own or other people’s emotions. This research implies that men and women at least start biologically equal as accurate emotion detection is a prerequisite for feeling empathy. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, infant boys scored equally as highly in terms of their sensitivity and attention to other people as infant girls did.
Therefore, despite some research claiming that women are more empathic than men, probably the only firm conclusion we can reach is that almost all people, regardless of sex, have the fundamental capacity to develop empathy.
In addition, a recent study published in Scientific Reports asserts that it shows that girls exhibit more empathy than guys do, even when they believe no one else is watching or enquiring.
At the University of Quebec, Joyce F. Bennson and colleagues paired up 5- to 7-year-old kids so that one would have bad luck while the other would watch it. The 23 male pairs and the 32 female pairs each had members who were acquainted but whom their teachers did not see as best friends or foes. (The researchers matched the pairs based on their sexes since previous research has shown that we have a stronger sense of empathy for those who are also our sex, making any sex-based empathy differences more obvious.)
Each pair was led to a space within their respective school. Except for two baskets filled with plastic construction blocks beside the door and a table at the far end, it was empty. They were asked if they would bring the blocks to the table and construct a tower. The children all appeared to want to participate in the fairly intricate entire story, which involves extraterrestrial kids who needed to get in touch with their parents.
The experimenter did inform them that one basket was slightly broken before leaving the room, so if a child discovered that their blocks fell, they should simply pick them up with their hands and carry them over to the table.
The researchers then used a remote control to split one of the baskets, releasing the child’s bricks, which were captured by hidden cameras. The research team concentrated on the other child’s responses and evaluated them using four “empathy indicators”: looking at the victim for more than three seconds, pausing their activity for more than a second, pausing their activity until the other child had placed a block on the tower, and actively intervening by picking up the basket or blocks.
Eight of the girls engaged in all four behaviours, whereas none of the boys did so (though seven girls and five boys did not engage in any at all). Overall, a greater proportion of females than boys gave the victim more than three seconds to recover before putting their block in. The researchers concluded that female witnesses “exhibited more empathic behaviour than male bystanders,” adding that it is “very likely” that women feel larger levels of empathy, which inspire them to act in ways that demonstrate more care for victims.
There is a chance. The researchers may have discovered behavioural markers of sex-based empathy differences, as they claim. But other reasons might be possible. It’s possible that females are more tolerant or pleasant than boys are (according to research, women and girls tend to score higher on this personality attribute than men), or that guys were more competitive and chose to focus on their projects rather than acting on their partner’s empathy.
Most of the boys stopped what they were doing after the accident. Most did not engage in any additional “empathic behaviours,” although this does not necessarily imply that they did not share the same level of sympathy for their unfortunate companions as the girls.
Women who act in ways that defy gender stereotypes, such as being forceful, are perceived as less likeable and therefore less employable. Does the same apply to men? Have they been treated the same way if they deviate from the strong macho stereotype?
Yes, to answer briefly. According to research, men also encounter resistance when they reject patriarchal gender norms — when they exhibit modesty, act nicer, express melancholy, show empathy, and indicate vulnerability.
According to psychologists, social constructions, which begin early, frequently contribute to these observed disparities. According to Fredric Rabinowitz, chair of the psychology department at the University of Redlands in California, whose studies and private practice focus on men’s mental health, “we don’t encourage guys to have terminology around their emotions beyond anger.” According to Rabinowitz, this happens because many males are taught that their deepest emotions are separate from who they are, which results in “unprocessed trauma.” Men cannot express their emotions when they lack emotional vocabulary.
Many men still think — or at least hope — that suppressing deeper emotions will have no negative effects, even if they no longer think doing so makes them “stronger.” They’re mistaken. For instance, research demonstrates that suppressing negative emotions affects mental health, intensifies anxiety and depressive symptoms, and triggers physiological reactions that, over time, are connected to cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease.
I thoroughly analyze the masculine stereotype with a focus on toxic masculinity in my book, Macho Men: How Toxic Masculinity Harms Us All and What To Do About It. The following are some findings from my research:
- The majority of parents unconsciously start projecting an innate “manliness” onto baby boys as young as newborns.
- At the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl. Masculine stereotypes reflect a view of men who shouldn’t display “feminine” traits like emotional vulnerability, which show weakness; they should be “tough” and not emotionally expressive (unless it’s anger or aggression). Little boys are, in fact, a little more sensitive and expressive than little girls, assuming there are any differences at all. When a carer leaves the room, they weep more readily, seem more quickly frustrated, and show signs of being more agitated.
- Fathers and mothers instill in their boys a sense of “competition and achievement” as well as emotional self-control. Likely operating under the presumption that boys “can take it,” a study also discovered that parents of both sexes are harsher on their sons.
- In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Terry Real claims: “In Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, it is stated that while “boys are not only told they should conceal their feelings but that their manliness fundamentally hinges on them doing so,” girls are “free to preserve emotional expressiveness and nurture connection.”
- Men who exhibit vulnerability, emotional intelligence, and moral courage are exhibiting positive masculinity. It necessitates a re-evaluation of what it means to be a male and a change in how society views “masculinity.”
- Men who exhibit positive masculinity are open and unafraid to express their wants and feelings. Men must also treat others with love and respect and refrain from abusing their power or dominating them.
- Sensitivity and empathy do not have to be at odds with masculinity. These ought to be viewed as gender-neutral characteristics. Qualities like kindness, honesty, compassion, and empathy are also gender-neutral.
To regard men as being equally emotionally knowledgeable and capable of empathy as women, the following conclusions and actions might be adopted in the context of the workplace:
Displaying sensitivity. Men are trained not to seek aid or to show vulnerability, and they risk punishment if they defy this socialization. An interesting collection of studies from 2015 reveals that people regard male (but not female) leaders as less competent, capable, and confident when they ask for assistance. Men are also thought to be of lower status when they expose a weakness at work and make themselves appear vulnerable. This is an issue since failing to ask for assistance when you need it or admit where you need to grow inevitably results in blunders and less growth.
Civility. Many of us desire more pleasant guys at work, therefore it makes sense that men would be praised for their composure and modesty. Wrong. Men who are more sociable and amiable (e.g., warm, compassionate, supporting, sympathetic) tend to earn much less than men who are more stereotypically masculine. In comparison to less agreeable men, more agreeable men across various industries made an average of 18% less money and were deemed to be less likely to have management prospects.
Similarly to this, “pleasant guys” were considered employable for managerial positions. In an experimental study, it was discovered that male consultants who tended to speak up more for their team than for themselves were seen as having less agency and competence and were more likely to face job termination. Unfortunately, males may be less likely to exhibit these behaviours that could advance their careers and make them better teammates due to the real and psychological costs of being a nice person at work.
Demonstrating Empathy. Leadership involves a lot of empathy. But compared to males, women are more likely to be given “credit” for it. According to a recent study, female leaders who demonstrated empathy (as reported by their staff) were less likely to experience career setbacks, such as issues with interpersonal relationships, challenges creating and leading teams, challenges with change and adaptation, failure to meet business goals and objectives, and having a functional orientation that was too narrow. There was no correlation between male leaders’ empathy and their superiors’ estimate of probable career derailment, therefore males did not benefit from this boost. These findings are important because effective leadership depends on the ability to show empathy.
Demonstrating Sadness. American guys are raised to be stoic. When they exhibit emotions other than rage, what happens? According to research, males who express melancholy at work are perceived as less deserving of that feeling than sad women. Men who cry at work are viewed as being less competent and more emotional than women who cry, according to a 2017 study. As compared to women who cry in reaction to performance feedback, men who cry are rated as being low performers, less likely to advance, and less capable. While neither men nor women should cry frequently at work, an authentic workplace must permit all employees to feel the same emotions without being penalized.
Displaying Humility. What occurs when guys act humbly? According to research, modest males were rated as less pleasant, less agentic, and weaker than modest women. This is because they were more modest in how they expressed their qualifications. Similar to how self-effacing women were viewed as having higher competence and being more desirable to recruit, self-effacing men were viewed as having lower competency and being less desirable to hire. As the negative impacts of narcissism at work become more widely recognized, we should promote men’s modesty rather than punish it.
Embracing Feminism. As was already said, a sizable portion of American men self-identify as feminists. However, studies suggest that males who identify as feminists are more likely to experience sexual harassment, which can range from offensive comments to unwelcome advances. Additionally, studies show that men who work in environments where men predominate and who are viewed as being overly feminine are more likely to experience harassment. According to research, men who request family leave — a request that traditionally belonged to women — are seen as being less capable workers and are less likely to receive promotions than their female colleagues. Instead of mocking feminist guys for not being “masculine enough,” we should embrace them.
Men Should be Commended for Their Good Behavior. Men that exhibit these “good guy” traits need to be well-liked by company leadership. For instance, when negotiating salary, businesses should resist the pressure from a powerful guy and work to ensure that men are compensated fairly. Additionally, given the numerous advantages of humility, businesses should foster a culture where men who exhibit humility are commended. By sharing tales of how their vulnerability improved the organization’s performance, organizational leaders can champion males within the organization.
Broaden Men’s Knowledge About Gender Norms. Employees, particularly men, sometimes express mistrust toward diversity training. Focusing on how gender stereotypes about women and men affect expectations for their behaviour is one strategy to deal with this problem. Do not “gender police,” but rather emphasize that men and women are both victims of gender stereotypes, as white males are more prone to feel defensive when businesses conduct diversity training. Normative gender expressions in terms of conduct or appearance are imposed through gender policing. According to research, it is detrimental to men’s ability to completely express themselves at work to force them to follow gender standards, such as those regarding clothes. Younger workers will be more drawn to workplaces that allow for true expression in terms of attire and manner.