Square Peg, Round Hole – Why the Route to High Performance is Different for Men and Women

Venturing into the world of personal development is a bit like embarking on a journey through a maze. Some turns look promising, signposted by charismatic figure congratulating themselves over their life-changing revelations, but if taken will typically lead us to a dead end. Other turns look less exciting, such as the ‘science of potential’ but actually lead us to where we want to go. I’m a big fan of the latter, and a self-proclaimed cynic of the former. However, this summer my cynicism began to waver where one ‘guru’ was concerned.


I’d previously been sceptical, but when a friend shared what he was gaining from this ‘guru’s’ book I was intrigued and took a look. It really was quite good: his claims were backed by evidence, it was easy to digest, and it made pragmatic sense. So, when he had an event 20 minutes from my house I decided to go.


Arriving at the event I resolved to hold on to my judgement even as the ‘guru’ unrelentingly told us how incredible he was. I popped to the bathroom and returned to see strangers hugging and proclaiming each other’s greatness. Despite wanting to run (and fast) I convinced myself that perhaps I was just being ‘too British’. I had after all come here to learn and that’s what I would do. And I did, but what I learnt wasn’t quite what I’d expected….


It was when he started talking about ‘consistency’ that it suddenly struck me. The reason his ‘wisdoms’ were irritating me (aside from his self-proclaimed brilliance) was because – here was a man, talking to a two-thirds female audience about how to achieve high performance, HIS way. What he was suggesting might work for men BUT it would not work for women because it simply didn’t take account of the female brain.


Before I continue, I should dispel a common myth. Women’s and men’s brains are actually more similar than they are different. However, any woman and any man who has lived with a woman knows that our level of happiness, clarity of thinking and self-esteem are just a few things that can dramatically fluctuate. And this, surprise surprise is because hormones impact brain function and our hormone levels are not consistent. We don’t enjoy this monthly ride, but it comes part in parcel with being female.


Worryingly it’s not just ‘gurus’ who are gendered in their approach, academic research is too. For example, neuroscientific studies are predominantly carried out on male brains because ‘hormonal cycles complicate studies in female research’. But the scant research that has been done on females shows that there are links between ‘emotion-dependent cognitive processes’ and menstrual cycle phase, which at times negatively impacts performance.


Looking to sport where performance is more overt, there’s also a significant lack of research into women. However, what does exist shows that during menstruation women have a reduction in power and increased fatigue. Strength and aerobic performance are also impaired during certain phases, and anaerobic performance in others. Psychologically confidence, focus, reaction to criticism, motivation, competitiveness and sleep quality are also impacted at different times in the cycle.


I’ve coached and profiled senior men and women for the past 20 years. I’ve spent hours and hours listening to the differences in how they experience the world and how, the ongoing hormonal changes impact performance. So, I did begin to question why I had never ‘joined the dots’ on this before? Well…

  • I was trained by men on approaches developed by men, for men and I probably didn’t notice the significance of this because as a woman I’m also unconsciously biased. Research by the UN Development agency found that “close to 90% of men AND women hold some sort of bias against women”.
  • When working one-to-one I look for what fits the person in front of me, I don’t apply a blanket solution.
  • When working on team high performance the most critical factors are not heavily impacted by fluctuations in hormone levels.

From now on I am going to continually assess my work to make sure I’m consciously taking account of women’s needs. So, Mr Guru, thank you for the incredible lesson.


What can we all do to help women perform at be at their best?

  • Women, support women. While we may not overtly believe it, we have been brought up to compete rather than support one another, but research shows that we thrive on collaboration.
  • Be cautious about what you read and who you listen to. Even when it comes to science question – What is the evidence based on? Most research focuses on performance in men.
  • Women try not to compare your performance directly men. For instance, even training for a 10k race should look different and tailored to your specific needs. Why? It’s known that declining hormones at certain times of your cycle cause an inflammatory response, impacting energy levels, compromising recovery and putting you at higher risk of injury. If you use a male training model you could well end up out of the race. When it comes to environments that are not dependent on physiology we can and do equal men in our performance capabilities, but how we get there still needs to take account of being female.
  • As a result, we should offer women coaching, mentoring and/or peer support to explore and take account of their personal needs and how the science of performance does and does not apply to them.


Yes, it’s harder working out what works when and keeping track of how hormonal levels impact us. But at least if we try and find the right personal fit, we may be a little kinder to ourselves when we don’t tick all the boxes on ‘the rules of high performance’ written by a man.




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Photo – Andrea Piacquadio

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