Why do women see the world in shades of gray?

This is interesting. A study, report in The Atlantic, finds that the sexes interpret the world differently, with men more likely to judge it in black-and-white terms. Women see more shades of gray.

Hmmm, do you know any organizations with all-male leadership? Or blogs with lots of male commenters? I leave it to you to draw any possible connections. The Atlantic write-up concludes, “Willingness to see the world in complex shades of gray… could give women an edge in leading the companies of the future.” Not sure what that might mean.



  1. Shades of grey, I exclaimed when I read your title, and I thought of all the colors I feel women would choose rather than grey. But then I read your post and saw that in fact the shades of grey vs. black-and-white were better.

    I don’t know whether the report is accurate. What I can say is that the women and men I like do not see the world in binary terms: it is just too limiting, too conflictual.

    As to who will be leading the companies of the future… I would be interested in exploring how will be these companies — soul-less corporations, banks too big to fail, or grass-roots companies empowering the people who work there.

    Finally, thank you for implying what the poet Aragon said years ago, i.e. that woman is man’s future 🙂

  2. Well, I would also suggest that, where one sees patterns of B&W framing, one might also be seeing the residue of people who grew up in families formed in part by addictive patterns. One of the classic problems with “white knuckle drunks” versus people in recovery is lack of self-awareness about B&W thought patterns.

    1. Matt Ferguson,

      First, I didn’t say that B&W thinking is exclusively associated with addictive patterns.

      Second, there are patterns of thought that frequently arise in families with addictive members, even in the non-addicted members. ACOAs, among many, know about this.

      1. To your first point…thanks for the clarification.

        To the second…I’ve read about the dynamics of alcoholic families. It’s quite fascinating isn’t it?

  3. The author does not report any control adopted by the researchers for level of education. Men can learn to tolerate ambiguity; women can learn to commit to firm–and unequivocal–positions. (Hamlet was male; Antigone was female. Literature is full of counter-examples to “type” as well as stereotypes.) I suspect that the male-female disparity explored in this study tends to diminish as level of education, formal or informal, increases. Outside of the value system of the business world and especially in areas calling for moral judgment, surely ignoring the grey areas can lead to problems, just as reluctance to categorize and select relevant principles can become a way of avoiding hard choices. As for the questions our editor raises, since I’ve never been a member of an exclusively male decision-making process, I know it only in terms of results, and yes, I’ve seen relative intolerance for after-the-fact questions and calls for justification or reconsideration. Somehow, the directives to adopt the New Roman Missal come to mind here. . . .

    1. I’m currently rethinking what I wrote above. It sounds a bit too analytic now, not nearly nuanced enough. It’s really not all that black-and-white, is it? I’ll let you know if I ever decide for sure!

  4. “I’ve never been a member of an exclusively male decision-making process,” M.C.

    I take it, Mary, you are not a member of the Roman catholic church.

  5. Talk about nuanced, Gerald, and I thought I’d written a simple tautology: if a woman were included, it would not be an all-male process. New shades of grey are rippling through the grey matter now, as it seems I’ve made a pathetic comment on the status of women in Roman Catholicism.

  6. My mother decided to leave the Episcopal Church because she got tired of the woman priest constantly preaching about why she had a right to be a priest. I don’t think my mother would be interested in women in the hierarchy. Perhaps she thinks too black and white.

  7. Aren’t both the black-and-white and the shades-of-gray emphases important gifts that together help the People of God stay faithful to the simultaneously very simple and very complex truth we’ve been given in Christ? To me it is nonsensical to pit the two emphases against one another.

    1. To pit them against one another seems to be too black-and-white a view on the matter 🙂

  8. Apart from women’s ordination, there are important questions of how to engage women” voices at all levels of Church leadership. We have a problem – we’re not doing that. How can we do so better within an all-male hierarchy? That question is highly important in my view, so I post provocative pieces like this one.

    Furthermore, without advocating for women’s ordination, one can (and should, if he or she is a theologian) examine every possible argument for and against the possible ordination of women in the future. A piece such as this is helpful, for it reminds us what we may be missing by having no women present when most leadership decisions are made, since we tie ordination and decision making presently.

    Note that John Paul II said that the Church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women. This is a clear and pretty strong statement. But still, it’s is in the present tense and does not address the future. The only official claim that JP2’s statement on non-ordination of women is infallible is from the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict). But that statement is not an infallible one, and it could be mistaken in its claim that JP2’s statement is infallible.

    I personally do not claim to know where the Church will be in 50 or 250 years on the ordination of women. (Nor does anyone know, obviously.) I don’t advocate for women’s ordination, but I do advocate for the most constructive, open discussion possible to help the Church in her discernment.

    Welcome to the complexities of Catholic theology. Women’s ordination as a discussion topic is not off-limits on this blog.


  9. The study reminded me of Carol Gilligan’s research concerning women and moral decision making. I recall that relationship considerations weighed more strongly for women than they did for men. All quite interesting, though like many general patterns there are going to be exceptions and variations. (Gosh, there I go, seeing shades of gray!)

    Perhaps the clergy woman whom Matthew’s mother found so tiresome was ineptly attempting to find acceptance (a relational quest) by means of self-justification to her imagined opponents on what she thought to be their terms (appeal to abstract principles). My observation has been that it takes time to iron out self-conscious awkwardness. The Alban Institute once did a study which found that it took congregations who newly accepted women as preachers an average of 10 years to actually hear what they were saying, without the event being dominated by the thought that “a woman is speaking.” A good friend of mine (a Catholic priest) once told a very fine lay preacher (a woman) that when she reached the day when no one came up to her anymore to say “I was so glad to hear a woman preach” she should rejoice. I think that this can happen in Catholic circles now as it couldn’t 20 – 30 years ago. But lay preaching remains quite rare.

  10. There is so much the RCC could do to involve women in decision making but has not yet done. These are things which do not require ordination and would demonstrate that the celibate male clergy will act on what they say about the dignity and status of women. Some of them would even free male clergy for sacramental rather than administrative roles.

    Few of these require more public statements of policy. They can just be done by individual bishops and dicasteries.

    Begin addressing the male monopoly in the dicasteries and chanceries. I am heartened by US dioceses which have female administrators and tribunal members, but neither dioceses nor the Curia seem willing to put priests in parishes instead of in offices in general. When will a woman head a curial office?

    Most dramatically, the pope could change the election process for his successor. Balance the number of male bishops from dioceses and dicasteries with an equal number of women religious from the largest orders and congregations. The papal election process has been changed many times before; one piece of parchment, one signature, it is easily done.

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