Book Review: “Brain-savvy Woman: A two-in-one guide to the neuroscience that can help your career” Jan Hills and Francesca Hills (Head, Heart + Brain; 2017)

The first thing immediately apparent about this book is that it is in fact two books; confusing, huh? The mother-daughter authoring duo has given us a 700 page bonanza packed full of insight, information and intention. Essentially, both books are about the neuroscience and nature of gender bias in business – one focuses single mindedly on this, while the other looks at the survival and thriving strategies that both men and women can employ to create a more fulfilling career for themselves.

For context, Jan Hills has written two excellent previous books (Brain-savvy HR and Brain-savvy Business): now, she has teamed up with her daughter, a senior media executive with – presumably – a good perspective on both people behaviours and on women in business. Jan brings 40 years of experience in neuroscience and equal opportunities; it’s a potent team.

In support of the book, the authors have conducted research with 1,000 respondents on the topic of gender issues in the workplace, and the resulting insight is blended with the outcomes of other research.

The book is very well referenced; furthermore, there are fictitious case studies that run through each book, based on the experience of both authors and on the research they carried out for the book.

Two useful guides within one cover

The first challenge on picking this book up is to decide which ‘side’ to read first! I elected to look at the half that seeks to identify how women can overcome gender bias. This is set up with a research-based assertion that gender bias is still strong despite its prominence in the media over the last 40 years. With useful comments about nature vs nurture, stereotyping and social cues, the authors posit that one of the issues is that we are suffering from a kind of gender-bias blindness. Despite the evidence that demonstrates no gap in abilities between the sexes, and with growing additional knowledge about the brain activity of men and women, the Hills make the point that there is no rationale for gender bias and, indeed, the combination of men and women working together brings the best possible opportunity for good outcomes.

The authors spend substantial time explaining stereotypes, touching on the relationship between stereotyping and impression management, personal branding and role playing, among other things. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on language and how word choice, tone and delivery style set the framework for gender bias (see, as a good example, the description of the 3Ds on page 73). There are also some interesting references to the traditional role of women (‘Mother Earth’ as a benign giver of life) and to traditional definitions of femininity which assume warmth, submissiveness and implied reduced competence. These beg the question of whether gender bias can ever be wholly eradicated.

The book about how women can overcome gender bias finishes with a helpful call to action (chapter 17) which could readily offer HR departments and managers a ‘to do’ list for tackling gender inequality.

The second book – on how men and women can survive and thrive at work – is equally as useful, rammed with observations, tips and references. It starts with a slightly more technical explanation of how the brain works and how it processes information and handles emotions. I wonder whether the factual start is a ‘nod of the head’ to the male reader – or am I being stereotypical with that thought? It then moves on to a number of sections dealing with habit building, well being, resilience, networking and influencing, self-awareness, team building and other useful personal development topics.

The research that the authors carried out led them to conclude that many strategies adopted by organisations – women’s leadership development, women’s mentoring networks and employee resource groups, for example – have been beneficial, but are often operationalised in a piecemeal fashion, thus diluting their impact. Much of this, though, is undermined by the in-built biases of many recruitment processes, which the authors spend some time exploring.

A challenging but essential read

One of the most valuable elements of these books is the provision by the authors of two sections at the end of each chapter: the ‘career hacks’ offer useful improvement tips for deployment back in the workplace, while the additional resources section guides the reader to books, blogs, articles and online videos and webinars. Given the books’ scope and scale, these are immensely helpful and provide an ongoing reference opportunity to the reader: maybe these should all have been consolidated in one place, for ease of ongoing reference.

The book’s novelty – being a ‘two-in-one’ is also its Achilles heel: there is a fair amount of repetition. And it’s a big book! The repetition is understandable, since different arguments are sometimes made using similar data sources; however, I wonder whether it could have been more economically planned. Additionally, there are frequent references to ‘the other side’ to a point where I feel that perhaps the two-side aspect might have been better rolled up together – however, removing the two-in-one approach would clearly make this a very different offering, and I suppose it is up to each reader to form their own view on the merits and disadvantages of the approach.

I have to say, there were times as I read this when I felt slightly uncomfortable: after many years in the world of work, being reminded of the advantages that men have in the workplace was a useful prompt for me, even if it made for unsettling reading. Perhaps I am, as a male, supposed to feel that.

Book review by David Evans, Head of Organisational Consulting at Primeast, send David an email here.

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