Do women cope better than men with stress or is gender irrelevant? This was a question I was asked by a leader the other day. It’s also something I’ve referred to often in my keynotes and media interviews. This blog answers the question.
The term ‘fight or flight’ (also known as ‘the fight-flight-or-freeze-fawn response,’ ‘hyperarousal’ or ‘the acute stress response’) was first coined by Walter Cannon in 1932 and is generally regarded as the way a person react to stress. For example, if someone sizes up a threat or predator and determines that they have a realistic chance of overcoming the predator, then it’s likely they’ll attack. But when the threat is perceived to be more dangerous, then flight is more probable.
But is this the actual truth or is the research flawed? Some researchers believe it is as it’s based on research done before 1995, where women constituted only about 17% of participants in laboratory studies of physiological and neuro-endocrine responses to stress. As the gender balance was redressed in the 5-years following, it resulted in a modified understanding of how men and women respond to stress.
Today, evidence suggests that women and men react differently to stress–both psychologically and biologically. And women may cope better than men in high-stress workplace scenarios because they are biologically programmed to respond differently.
Given the ever-evolving threat landscape and the increasing complexity of data breaches, hacks, and compliance failures, it’s important to consider the biological advantages that females possess in highly stressful situations and how they could be an invaluable asset when facing complex cyber threats.
Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight
According to researchers at the University of California (and published by Shelley E Taylor and her team in 2000), it turns out that during times of stress, males respond with a ‘fight or flight’ response, designed to compete, and conquer. Females on the other hand, respond with a ‘tend and befriend’ response – a physiological reaction involving the release of oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’) associated with peer bonding, affiliation, and motherhood.
The researchers discovered that a female’s response is based on female reproductive hormones and endogenous opioid peptide mechanisms, and that…
“…by virtue of differential parental investment, female stress responses have selectively evolved to maximize the survival of self and offspring.”
As estrogen may play a key role in modulating social behaviours tied to oxytocin, such as friendly and caring tendencies, this suggests that a female’s level of nurturing and friendliness could be highest during her late luteal phase, less so in the follicular phase, and decreased once she enters menopause. See the diagram (fig 1.) below for information on the phases and how each phase affects people who menstruate.
Evidence from rhesus monkeys adds further credence to this hypothesis as females tend to be more sociable near ovulation or when given estrogen (Wallen & Tannenbaum, 1997) but further evidence needs to be gathered in order to better understand these dynamics.
How Women can Use their Monthly Cycles Strategically
The researcher’s findings suggest that females are better able than males to diffuse potentially stressful and high pressure situations through collaboration, communication, and cooperation – rather than by engaging in a zero-sum game or attempting to dominate the situation. The findings may also explain why males are more vulnerable to a broad array of stress-related disorders, including episodes of violence, such as homicide and suicide; dependence on stress-reducing substances, such as alcohol or drugs; stress-related accidents and injuries; and patterns of cardiovascular reactivity.
In humans, studies have shown that testosterone (which is found in much higher doses in men than women) increases in response to attractive women and acute stress, including high-intensity exercise and psychological stress. This effect varies depending on the type of stressor as well as individual differences.
In highly stressful situations males appear be more aggressive towards men.They are more likely to use physical aggression in struggles for power within a hierarchy or to defend territory against perceived external enemies. While females tend to be less physically aggressive than males, reseachers at the University of California say they often demonstrate similar, or even higher levels of indirect aggression, for example, gossiping, telling rumours, and convincing another person to act in a manner that puts a third party at a disadvantage. However, female verbal aggression still tends to be lower than male verbal aggression.
Insights from Game Theory
Insights from game theory also suggest that ‘tend and befriend’ reduces risk and may be a more preferable response to stress than the traditional ‘fight or flight’. The reason why is because mathematics attaches a positive value to co-operation. It provides both parties with an opportunity to test and learn more about one another. As the information generated increases the possible outcomes, it generates better solutions for any arising issue – something that isn’t achievable if the parties do not interact again. In game theory, competitions are only deemed the best strategy if the interaction is a one-off and if each party will never have contact with each other again – which rarely occurs in business environments.
Extensive biological research has shown that behaviour can have a significant impact on biology, from altering genetic expression to affecting how the body responds to stress. Similarly, biology is also known to influence behaviour in various ways. Whether females may be better equipped biologically to handle high-pressure workplace scenarios than males is contentious. If it is, it lends more weight to the argument (and drive) for women to be included in cybersecurity, and certainly to be involved in crisis handling during data breaches, hacks, and compliance failures.