Why Do Women Feel They Need Permission?

My husband is often surprised to learn that when I seem (to him) to make a decision, I haven’t really made it at all. “Haven’t you already decided to do that?” he asks. Coming from a male viewpoint, my husband can’t quite understand why I need to discuss the same thing multiple times and have it reflected back to me and affirmed by multiple girlfriends before I actually DO what I say I am going to do.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even fully aware that I do this until he pointed it out to me. “What is this about?” I wondered. Could it be my Libra Moon sign that leads me to seek social approval before making a decision? Could it be a simple personality trait of wanting to make sure that I understand every angle before proceeding? Or could it actually be a lack of self-esteem?

Luckily, I happened upon a book that is helping me answer some of these questions. “The Female Brain,” written by neurobiologist and psychiatrist Louann Brizendine of the University of California, looks at the distinct female biology and provides neurological explanations of how and why we as women show up in the world the way we do.

As many of us know, studies in physiology have proven that the female brain is different from the male brain on some very basic levels. First off, compared to the male brain, the female brain has a larger communication center.  Secondly, the female brain has a larger area for processing emotion and reading social cues. Males, by contrast, have two and half more times the brain space devoted to sexual drive than females AND they have larger brain centers for action and aggression!  If biology translates into personality, one could argue that there is a strong foundation for females and males to behave differently from one another.

In looking at females and males from a young age, a study at the University of Texas observed how one-year old girls and boys differed in the way they read and responded to social cues.  A child and mother were brought into a room, left alone together, and instructed not to touch an object. The mother stood off to the side. The study showed very few of the girls touching the forbidden object, even though their mothers never explicitly told them not to. The girls looked back at their mothers’ faces 10 to 20 times more than did the boys, checking for signs of approval or disapproval. The boys, by contrast, moved around the room and rarely glanced at their mothers’ faces. They frequently touched the forbidden object even though their mothers shouted, “No!”

I found this study hysterical. Although it was done on one-year-old children, could it explain why my husband goes ahead and does what he says without much rumination and why I seek out approval and in a way “permission” before I move ahead in business and in my personal life?

Examining the roots of female brain development, Dr. Brizendine revealed more telling information. She says, “Baby girls are born interested in emotional expression. They take meaning about themselves from a look, a touch, every reaction from the people they come into contact with. From these cues they decide whether they are worthy, loveable or annoying.”

Wow!  Double Wow!

She goes on to explain, “Whether or not she is being listened to will tell a young girl if others take her seriously, which in turn goes to the growth of her sense of a successful self. If she does not connect, her sense is of an UNSUCCESSFUL self.”

Aha! This struck a distinct chord with me. I know that when I am listened to attentively, I feel much more alive, empowered and self-confident. If a young girl’s brain searches for validation through external cues, then it makes sense that the mature female brain might seek the same external validation.

So I wonder…is it possible that if we are aware of our distinct female biology and neurological need to seek social approval, we can actually move beyond it? Or is this consensus building form of decision-making just a part of being female and in some way beneficial in some grander global way?

What do you think?


Tabby Biddle is a writer and editor specializing in helping women entrepreneurs and emerging authors get their message out. Additionally she is the founder of Lotus Blossom Style, a yoga lifestyle company created to support women in their personal transformation. She lives in Santa Monica, CA.


13 thoughts on “Why Do Women Feel They Need Permission?

  1. Aha! How do you know what us women are thinking on a weekly basis? Just recently, was I wondering why I hate to speak when I don’t have someone’s undivided attention. Now I know! Your blog this week is fantastic for dealing with the opposite sex. I also look forward to a major catch-up when we can relate all the details for a upcoming decision. I can’t wait to hear, attentively!

  2. I hear ya Greg. I think there is a lot involved in all of this — and I am only beginning to scratch the surface. I think there are so many factors that go into who we are and why we behave and react in the ways that we do. The information however from Dr. Brizendine allowed me to see more clearly some factors contributing to my way of “showing up” – and thus far that awareness is giving me a greater consciousness to actually see myself when I bouncing around and then step back — and then step back in with a little more centered perspective. Does that make sense?

    So happy to hear from you!

  3. Tabby,
    Yes, I agree with what you wrote but we have to take into consideration the nature (science) and nurture (environment) that is in many societies boys are preferrence and they are more open to do anything but girls are more restricted in general and that’s why we need reassurance or second opinions to finally make our decisions. I for example was always in need of others to make all the decisions for me and ultimately blame them for any wrong actions. But now that I am older (40) I make my own decisions amid some hesitations but I accept the consequences and I have a rule (I never regret anything) because at the time I made my decisions I was under different circumstance than afterwards when there is no pressure. Also, someone said it is better to make a decision (even if it is the wrong one) than not making any decisions at all because we will lose a lot more with inaction. Plus, as we get older, we take in more experiences that hopefully makes us mature to the point that making decisions will become easier and like your husband not to second guess ourselves.

  4. Tabby,

    I’m so glad that you are becoming more empowered also by understanding how differently our brains are wired. For more information on this topic, I highly recommend “Leadership and the Sexes” by Michael Guriann. It’s a new book, based on the latest science, with even more pertinent info than Louann provides. You are already familiar with Mona-Lisa Schulz work, but she has also written a book on the “New Feminine Brain”. It’s also very informative!

    And as a comment to Bita’s comment. Yes. I do agree. We are all a result of our environment. I used to think that was the only difference. Today, I believe that we are essentially two different species, based on not only the latest in brain research, but also on the fact that our bodies as so different. For example, even the way our enzymes break down food is different in women vs men. Nurture does affect us, but some things are hard-wired, and the more we learn, the more different we appear to be.

    Great topic! Keep spreading the word!


  5. Thank both Bita and Lotta for pointing out that nurture (our environment) also has an effect on us. I agree. I think it is fascinating to think though that if our brains are hard-wired a certain way — giving us certain behavioral tendencies — that the way our environment responds would follow. The chicken or the egg thing?

    One story in Dr. Brizendine’s book I found interesting (that emphasizes the female hard-wiring toward nurturing) was a story about a mom who gave her young daughter only”gender-neutral” toys. I’m not sure exactly what those toys included — except that one of the toys was a truck. One day the mom walked in to the room to find her daughter cuddling the truck in a blanket, rocking the truck, saying “It’s going to be alright truckie.”

    All interesting stuff.
    I’m going to check out those books that you recommended Lotta!


  6. tabby – YES. totally true. my husband is like “how many times do you have to workshop that before you decide?” it’s sort of funny but you are so right. we want everyone to agree and approve and bless….and all that….so here’s to making BOLD decisions and going for it. xx Amy

  7. Hi Amy!

    It was great to see you at the event on Saturday. Although brief, it was nice to see you anyway. I hope everything is going well for you! I agree..here’s to making BOLD decisions and going for it. I just signed up for Jen’s “How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal” course. 🙂

    Keep in touch.

  8. I finished the book in one day and had a different reaction to the book. I found it stereotypical and made sweeping statements and generalisations.

    I’m not gender confused, nor am I homosexual, but much of what was written did not apply to me. I’m an introvert that rarely seeks social approval or company in general. Least of all, female company. Most of my friends are male. I’m not a tomboy either. I was disappointed that Brizendine totally neglects the effects of environment and personality differences.

    After writing a review for it, I did further research into its critical reception, and there has actually been many scientific journals and newspaper articles discrediting the book, highlighting many studies cited in her references as invalid and some just incomprehensible (the source of her claim that females speak 20,000 words a day against the male’s 7,000 has not been found nor proven). I really enjoyed the book, but I cautioned myself against believing her findings. Though her findings may correlate with some situations and instances, they are not facts, and certainly not true of all females.

    I just found it entertaining, to be honest. Nothing to take seriously.

  9. Thanks for writing in Nicola.
    I hear ya — all things need to be checked out. All things need to be tested against our own experience. It’s a good lesson.
    What I find so interesting is how science studies can refute one another. Some people people totally rely on science, some people totally rely on experience, some totally rely on intuition, and some — a combo. For me — I like to gather information and reflect on it from my own experience and help myself make a little more sense of this world and all of us here. I guess what is so cool is that we all have different experiences and that is what is so rich about life.
    Thanks again Nicola for writing. I enjoyed hearing about your experience and perspective.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s