Is Empathy Training the Answer to Advancing Gender Equality?

By Michaela Guthridge

Allegations of trolling, upskirting, and a mocking apology by federal MP Andrew Laming are just the latest in a litany of reports which have revealed systemic issues of gender inequality in our nation’s capital. In response to these allegations, Prime Minister Scott Morrison directed Laming to undertake empathy training.

These incidents are set within a wider context of generalised disrespect of women in the halls of parliament. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose government has reportedly paid $190,000 on empathy training in the past, has looked to his wife Jenny for guidance on invoking an empathic response. In relation to Laming, the Prime Minister is reported to have said “I would hope that we would see a very significant change in his behaviour”.  

After attending the online course, Laming has now claimed that he has too much empathy.

So, was empathy the answer?

We may quickly answer a resounding ‘no!’ But it needs some unpacking to garner a deeper understanding of whether empathy can truly be a way forward or not.

If we look to the neuroscience of empathy, we discover there is more than one dimension of empathy. The dimension we are most familiar with is cognitive empathy. This colloquially is stepping into another’s shoes to imagine another’s perspective. Through this perspective-taking we can appreciate our ‘sameness’ despite our many differences. Perspective-taking and prosocial behaviours develop when we are between 18-25 months old and by adulthood our trait empathy is relatively stable. This suggests that behaviour change based on cognitive empathy would require intensive and long-term dedication beyond the capabilities of any online short course.

There also may be great danger in using cognitive empathy to achieve gender equality as one person’s understanding is not equivalent to another’s. To take the metaphor of stepping into another’s shoes, we only know how we feel in another’s shoes. Their shoes may be a perfect fit for us, but abrasive and uncomfortable for another. If we apply this notion to gender equality, we could say that a man has no point of reference in which to imagine what it is to be a woman. It appears that the training undertaken by Laming was based on the cognitive dimension of empathy given that he now considers himself with a surfeit of empathy.

Another Dimension of Empathy

There is, however, another dimension of empathy known as affective empathy. Affective empathy allows you to feel what another is feeling via the brain’s mirror neuron system. If cognitive empathy can be conceptualized as ‘I understand how you feel’, affective empathy is described as ‘I feel what you feel’. This second dimension of empathy may be ‘trainable’. In this respect, affective empathy is malleable, and much more than a social or emotional reflex. Affective empathy can be a choice and a skill that can be improved with attention, dedication and practice, and targeted brain training could be a powerful way to alter the function, connections and activity within and between our key neural networks. Because of this, racism, ageism, ableism, sexism and heterosexism are not inevitable. They can be learnt (and unlearnt) based on the acquisition of non-biased attitudes.

Traditional strategies for overcoming gender inequality have generally focused on increasing knowledge or awareness rather than on modulating experience or behaviour. Compulsory diversity training is often ineffective, can result in backlash, and has shown only modest to weak impacts on gender-based discrimination. Indeed, fact-driven presentations that cite statistics can have the contrary effect of normalising discriminatory behaviour as ‘everyone is doing it’. Traditional education or training programs may not effectively influence our implicit biases in order to challenge or change harmful and discriminatory constructs, particularly when the principles that we are taught contradict what we see, hear and feel in our environments. While important steps forward have been taken, the limited effectiveness of strategies to combat gender inequality calls for consideration of alternative approaches that support the existing legal architecture.

My Model

I propose a new theoretical model that may lead to effective change through cultivation of empathic responses towards women and girls. The theoretical model is based on the neuroscience of affective empathy and has three elements: (1) Intersubjectivity, (2) Multisensory Engagement, and (3) Empathic Embodiment.

In intersubjectivity, it is not the subject of two people that is important. It is the relationship that exists between them; in the shared third space. It mandates a perpetual response, transcending the temporal limitations of the human rights system. Intersubjectivity is important in the current context because gender equality is an ongoing goal that requires constant reinforcement and is not a static endgame achieved by an online course such as the one attended by Laming.

The second element of the model of affective empathy is multisensory engagement. Operating in a multisensory environment can hone our empathic skills. In particular, the brain’s mirror mechanisms appear to convert sensory information from sights, sounds and sensations into a motor format, which enables us to feel what another is feeling. Whilst there is no equivalent to multisensory processing in the human rights-based approach, it could create an ‘enabling environment’ for the advancement of women’s human rights.  

The final element in my model of affective empathy is empathic embodiment, which is a subjective element specific to the occurrence of embodying the experience of others. The rate of mirroring is low in interactions with outgroup members (such as women) because people generally do not mirror their outgroups. When mirroring basic emotions, the person mirroring does not necessarily have to feel the full emotion expressed or interpret its implications because it is the commonality, not the compassion, that generates equality.

This model requires rigorous empirical testing and validation. As part of this testing, I am now seeking to explore the practical application of the model based on current NGO work. I hypothesize that this model is particularly suited young girls and boys as the next generation of feminists. This is important as there is a gap in NGO interventions that target pre-adolescents, a critical time when biases, stereotypes and empathy are formed.

We can be assured that we will never live in a world devoid of all empathy. As integral to our sense of humanity, empathy inspires our greatest human sentiments; both love and hate. When we empathise with someone, we humanise them. It is this potential that gives empathy such power. But in order to disrupt the hegemony and initiate transformative equality, a seismic shift in thinking is required. In theory, this three-pronged model could be capable of supporting such a change.

Applying the Model

In dealing with the allegations levelled at Laming, Scott Morrison said “I don’t want to see gender become a defining thing in this nation”. Perhaps it should, but that takes leadership. Barnaby Joyce said you can’t “redesign people’s brains” with empathy training. You can, but it has to target the right dimension of empathy. It has to target affective empathy. Empathy is learnt, but as we see from the outcome of Laming’s training, teaching cognitive empathy can be dangerous and can make one believe they are too empathic, which unfortunately can be a hallmark of psychopathy.

The task of tackling the toxic culture of misogyny in the ‘Canberra Bubble’ and broader society is not advanced by empathy training, a PM for Women, confusing messages about sexual consent, and a cabinet reshuffle. While measures known to create change, such as gender quotas and legal sanctions are continually brushed aside by the current government, this only perpetuates a lack of accountability and commitment to gender equality. New models based on the neuroscience of affective empathy may be the way forward to achieving gender equality. Given the high stakes (as exemplified here) exploring a model based on affective empathy is paramount. 

Michaela Guthridge is PhD Candidate at Monash University exploring how the neuroscience of affective empathy can advance gender equality. Contact:

This is an abridged version of a talk given at the 65th United Nation Commission on the Status of Women parallel event: “Next Frontiers: Neurofeminism, #UsToo and Korean Unification” 16 March 2021.

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