Women's health

Why it's hard for women to speak up in meetings

Feb. 23, 2012 at 8:00 AM ET

It's infuriating when it happens in a meeting: You know you have a unique take on the problem at hand, but when a colleague shows off a pair of particularly smarty pants -- well, it's hard to get the guts to voice your dumb old opinion. 

But here's a bit of encouraging news: Those insecurities are probably all in your head, and that's especially true if you're a woman. 

The social dynamics of a group setting can actually lower the IQ scores of some people, according to a recent study led by scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to spy on the brains of people working in small groups. 

They tested the volunteers' IQ to get a baseline figure, then (cruelly) shared those scores with the group. Now everyone in those little groups knew where they stood, intelligence-wise -- and knowing their rank was enough to shake the confidence of some group members, particularly among the women. The participants were again given an IQ test, and even though initially all the subjects scored above average, the second test showed a much wider range of scores.

Researchers then divided the study subjects up into two groups based on their second IQ test to perform a series of tasks: the smarties with the higher scores versus the relative dunces with the lower scores. Of the 13 women who participated in the study, just three of them ended up in the higher-scoring group -- the rest landed with the dunces. 

"The way we organize our business is completely built around small groups," Read Montague, co-author of the study and director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, told TODAY.

"We used to think that ranking the group and rating the group provides a measure -- how are you performing in your job -- but in fact maybe in some settings that damages the performance of the group in ways you don't want to damage it."

Remember, this divide only happened after everyone discovered how they ranked in intelligence as compared to the rest of the group. One theory: Women might be more sensitive to social cues, and more likely to worry about the perceptions of others -- which might mean, in the real world, some great ideas aren't being shared. 

But on the bright side, as one woman told TODAY producers in an earlier interview, that sensitivity could also be considered a strength. "Let's use that to our advantage," said Joanna Stone Herman. "And let's actually be stronger and communicate better, because we know that we are picking up on these cues better, and we may be able to be that much more impactful."

This morning on TODAY, Ann Curry chatted with psychologist Jennifer Hartstein and Ivanka Trump, executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump organization, about the study's implications. Hartstein offered some practical advice for anyone -- man or woman -- who often feels shy or tongue-tied in meetings. 

"Maybe you need to practice what it is you want to say to someone," Hartstein suggests. "Or maybe you need to go to your manager before and say, 'Hey, I have a lot of things I want to bring to the table today. Can you make sure you put me on the agenda?' Or maybe managers even need to start to think about it differently and say, 'Everybody’s going to have a chance to say something in the meeting today, so be prepared, be ready.'"

What strategies or mantras have you turned to in order to find the courage to pipe up in an intimidating setting? Share your secrets and find tips from like-minded folks on our Facebook page.

Related:

Hat tip to our pals at Life Inc., who initially covered this study for TODAY.com: Meetings can make you, uh, stupid

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