Reframing How We Think about Women and Courage

Throng of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Woman's Vigilance League, march on New York City Hall to protest the soaring cost of food, March 12, 1917 for gender women and courage post

In March 2024, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken presented the International Women of Courage Award to twelve women from countries around the world “who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in order to bring about positive change in their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” Since 2007, over 190 women from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, Cuba, and Uganda have received this little-publicized award. To read the biographies of the chosen women is to marvel at their strength, fortitude, moral integrity, and outstanding courage. Witness Fatou Baldeh from Gambia fighting to extinguish female genital mutilation and cutting in a country where 75% of women have endured some form of it.

What is courage? Is courage defined differently for men and women? What are the gender stereotypes associated with women and courage? Is courage socially conditioned, innate, or some mixture of nature and nurture?

Let’s begin with a loose definition. Bravery and courage are often used interchangeably, but the origin of each word illustrates the difference. Bravery is thought to be a quality a person possesses that is acted out spontaneously and without fear. For example, if you see a dog about to be hit by a car, you run into the street to save it. You do not feel fear; you simply jump into action. The origin of “brave” translates as bold, savage, and wild.

Courage is a learned skill and an aspect of character. One undertakes a perilous risk despite being fearful, often for a moral reason that serves the greater good. The challenge may create overwhelming fear; it may subject a person to ostracism, disapproval, and danger, but one takes action anyway. The war journalist Jane Ferguson reported from some of the fiercest battlefronts on the planet. In her memoir No Ordinary Assignment she writes that courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. Belarusian human rights activist Volha Harbunova, one of this year’s IWOC award winners, said, “Courage is the ability to act in big and small ways every day, despite fear and pain, and to remain compassionate in the face of evil. Courage is when you care.”

Traditionally, in Western culture, courage has been the domain of male heroes, warriors in battle, men undertaking risks of derring-do.[i] Role models for women of courage too often center on physical bravery or athletic stamina, celebrating exceptional women like Serena and Venus Williams or Megan Rapinoe. But let’s pause to consider more invisible but equally courageous women.

As a nation of immigrants, many of us have female ancestors as well as contemporary relatives who demonstrated enormous courage in arriving at these shores. Their journeys may have occurred centuries ago as a child crossing an ocean alone on a ship, or as an enslaved woman, or more recently as an endangered mother entering the country with her children. Other examples include the myriad of unknown Indigenous heroines who defended their native lands and people, women who challenged Jim Crow laws, or single mothers across centuries who raised a family under dire circumstances.

Today’s everyday heroines might include the thousands of women, especially those with children, leaving abusive relationships, despite the loss of financial and other support, and the real fear of retaliation against herself or her children; and those willing to challenge a pattern of unfair or unjust practices in their school or workplace, when they know they need a job in that field.

Celebrity role models offer validation and inspiration to thousands of young people, while less iconic courageous women go unnoticed and unnamed. These women are our unsung heroines, dismissed by the culture, and, because they are unacclaimed, they are unaware of how courageous they are.

Recognizing ordinary women as role models for exceptional acts of courage reframes what courage looks like and expands the vision of possibilities for the development of courage in young girls. Social role theory states that males and females learn different qualities through socialization processes and from role models during their formative years.[ii] Males, for example, may learn and be socially rewarded for displaying agentic behaviors (including feats of physical bravery) and socialized against behaving in ways thought to be feminine.[iii] This may account for some of the apparent gender differences in types of heroic behavior.[iv]

Our culture exhibits strong reactions in how traits related to courage are perceived based on gender differences. A 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center involving over 4500 Americans found that people said traits related to strength and ambition are more highly valued for men and compassion, kindness, and responsibility are more highly valued for women. Specifically, the study reported that being powerful was viewed as positive in men in 67% of replies, whereas women being powerful was viewed negatively by 92%. Strength in men was found positive by 80%, but in women, only 60% found it positive. Aggression was viewed significantly more positively in men than women.[v]

Evolution has wired us to sense danger and feel fear. Fear is one of the emotions that ensures our survival, part of the basic equipment shared by all humans. The good news is courage is a learned skill.

According to social scientists, developing courage can be an ongoing learning process. We are never too old to learn courage. Jack Mezirow, the founder of transformative learning, studied adult women who returned to school. His research led him to conclude that when faced with new situations, adults don’t always apply their old understanding. When the learning involves critical reflection and review, it can lead to a transformative learning experience.[vi]

Transformative Learning Theory suggests that when we lean into a challenge, we have the potential to be transformed. We may be terrified of public speaking, but if we allow ourselves to face the fear and engage with it, we obtain a new perspective. We can be in the world in a new way. For women, especially, claiming our quiet acts of courage can lead to a revitalized sense of agency and a willingness to expand our sense of self.

Take a minute to consider courageous women you’ve known or admired. What do these women have in common? What qualities do you associate with female courage? Are there books, movies, poetry, or other sources that have modeled courage for you? Consider making a list of positive influences concerning courage and sharing it with friends. Where and when have you been courageous in your life?

[i] Kinsella, E.; Ritchie, T.; and Igou, E., “On the Bravery and Courage of Heroes: Considering Gender,” Heroism Science: (2017), Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 4.

[ii] Eagly, A. Sex differences in social behavior: A social role interpretation. Erlbaum (1987)

[iii] Bussey, K., & Bandura, A.. “Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation.” Psychological Review, (1999) 106, 676–713.

[iv] Becker, S. W., & Eagly, A. H. “The heroism of women and men”. American Psychologist, (2004) 59, 163-178.

[v] Walker, K., Bialik, K., van Kessel, P., “Strong Men, Caring Women: How Americans describe what society values (and doesn’t) in each gender” Pew Research, July 24, 2018.

[vi] Dirks, John, “Transformative Learning Theory in the Practice of Adult Education: An Overview,” PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, (1998) Vol. 7, 1-14.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Fatherless Daughters: The Impact of Absence,” “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine,” and “Mindfulness for Women: Confronting and Overcoming ‘Othering’

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.

Transforming Empathy Into Compassion: Why It Matters

Compassion. Holding Hands. for Empathy blog post


On a recent nightly news, I witnessed the tragic scene of a Turkish father wailing over the bodies of his wife and young children who had been crushed under debris from the February earthquake. Tears flooded my eyes and my body bent into the posture of mourning; the emotional distress of a stranger a continent away had become my own. Was this an automatic empathic response, an act of mimicry or emotional contagion? How do these affective states differ?

In “The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Klaus Lamm define mimicry as “the tendency to automatically synchronize affective expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person.”[i] If I see you crying, I cry, but my response is automatic and not the result of my ability to feel what you are feeling. In one study, when participants were shown photographs of sad faces, their pupil size mimicked the pupil size of the people in the photographs they were shown.[ii] This provides evidence that mimicry occurs outside our awareness.

Emotional contagion, like mimicry, is related to empathy and is sometimes thought of as a primitive type of empathy in which one person “catches” another person’s emotions. The word “catches” reflects the infectious quality of the phenomena. For instance, before they have developed any sense of an individual self, babies cry when exposed to other crying babies. Anyone who has attended a tense football game or soccer match can feel emotional contagion at work in the crowd.

Emotional contagion can occur at political rallies, in combat zones, in mass protests and revolutions, at public killings, or in ecstatic religious rites. Within families, emotional contagion can set the tenor of a household. A sensitive child may absorb a mother’s non-verbally expressed depression or a father’s pent-up anger and feel it as their own.

A personal experience comes to mind: when my sister was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, I had difficulty separating her family’s panic from my own unexamined feelings and was swept up in the family trauma. At that moment, my feelings were undifferentiated from the family’s. The ability to be attuned to the inner lives of others is a great asset for me as a novelist who delves deeply into her characters’ unconscious fears and desires; but my characters’ problems stay on the page, not in my heart.

An undifferentiated self is unable to identify, protect and separate their thoughts, feelings, and intuitions from those of others. Differentiation requires self-awareness and the ability to know one’s internal world and express it to others without fear. While it’s important to be aware of the emotional state of others, internalizing their distress can quickly overwhelm and incapacitate helpful action based on altruistic love.

Perhaps not surprisingly, current social neuroscience research points to gender differences for men and women in studies on empathy. In the largest study to date in 2022, Cambridge University scientists performed 312,579 “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” tests on adolescents and adults across 57 countries and found that women on average scored higher for “cognitive empathy” in 36 of the 57 countries. In no country did men score better on “cognitive empathy.”[iii] Cognitive empathy is when someone is intellectually able to understand what someone else is feeling or thinking. Researchers distinguish this from affective or emotional empathy when someone feels another’s emotions and responds with an emotion.  In this test, participants were asked to guess the facial expression just by looking at a pair of eyes. You can take a version of  this ten-minute test here.

Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes and is foundational to our existence as social creatures. Without empathy, we would be unable to perceive the suffering of others and take steps to alleviate it. Without empathy, we would feel lost and alone in a cold and indifferent universe.

As Lamm and Singer take pains to note, “Empathy crucially depends upon self-awareness and self/other distinction, that is, on our ability to distinguish between whether the source of our affective experience lies within ourselves or was triggered by the other.”

Mimicry or emotional contagion usually precede empathy which precedes sympathy and compassion, which in turn may lead to prosocial behavior.

But empathy burn-out is also a fact of life, especially for those engaged in caregiving services. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a renowned and rigorous investigator of the neuroscience of happiness, compassion, and empathy. Functional MRI scanning has enabled Dr. Davidson and his team of scientists to study the brains of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other long-term meditators and monks. One conclusion Davidson has drawn from his research: while the ability to feel our common humanity is essential to a cohesive, caring world, empathy without the skill of compassion diminishes our capacity to be of help.

Compassion is other-centered (feeling for); empathy brings us back to a focus on our own suffering in response to the suffering of others (feeling with). During the height of the COVID pandemic, we saw medical personnel and other front-line workers expressing mental and physical exhaustion, what popular science calls “empathy fatigue.” This is not limited to the helping professions but can occur within families and groups where difficulties may abound.

As Richard Davidson writes, “When people experience raw empathy, regions of the brain associated with pain and negative emotions become more active rather than the brain regions associated with positive feelings and a capacity to view things from another’s perspective. But with compassion, it’s a different network. It’s brain regions associated with positive emotions, feelings of connection, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective.”[iv]

To cultivate compassionate regions of the brain, Davidson suggests noticing what small gestures we can undertake when someone needs help—offering to carry a heavy grocery bag for an elderly person or aiding someone in crossing a busy street. Infinite possibilities exist for enacting daily random acts of kindness. Dr. Davidson and other spiritual teachers offer guided meditations on fortifying the neural networks for compassion. Big changes are not necessary to alter our attitude and understanding of how individuals can contribute more fully to a more compassionate world.

[i] Singer T, Lamm C. The social neuroscience of empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156: 81-96

[ii] Harrison, N. A., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., et al. (2006). Pupillary contagion: Central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing. Soc. Cogn. Affect Neurosci., 1, 5–17.

[iii] Greenberg, David M. Sex and age differences in “theory of mind” across 57 countries using the English version of the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, PNAS,  September, 2022

[iv] Davidson, Richard “Shift from Empathy to Compassion,” Healthy Minds Innovations, December 8, 2020

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?” and “Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination”.