meetings

Women clam up in meetings, study finds

Sep. 28, 2012 at 10:17 AM ET

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When attending meetings, women need to speak up more, a new study claims.

Women may be showing up for meetings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re speaking up at those meetings.

In a recent study, researchers at Brigham Young University and Princeton University found that in a typical meeting where decisions get made, women are clamming up, speaking 25 percent less than their male counterparts.

The study, published in the American Political Science Review, found that when women find themselves in the minority they tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. Interestingly, when a guy is the token male in a group, he isn't at all likely to find himself tongue-tied.

While the decision to remain silent can be good if you’re ever arrested, if you’re hoping to be recognized as a leader, keeping your mouth shut is not such a smart choice. The study found that group members who had a lot to say were more likely to be seen as influential. So it comes as no surprise that with women talking less, fewer women were recognized as leaders.

“In school boards, governing boards of organizations and firms, and legislative committees, women are often a minority of members, and the group uses majority rule to make its decisions,” said study co-author Tali Mendelberg of Princeton. “These settings will produce a dramatic inequality in women’s floor time and in many other ways. Women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their ‘voice is heard.’”

Although women often freeze up in meetings where they’re in the minority and the group needs to arrive at a majority-rules decision, there are situations where women will open up and share their thoughts.  Once women form the majority of the group, they’ll really start talking and will be more likely to assume leadership roles. Also, if a group has to arrive at a unanimous decision, women are again more likely to speak up.  When a group has to reach a unanimous decision, women recognize that every vote is equally important, prompting them to feel the need to contribute something to the overall effort and discussion.

The study’s researchers noted that women not only flourished when the group had to build consensus, but discussions began to take a different tone as well. When women took more active roles, the whole vibe of the group changed. The researchers found those groups to be more positive, more inclusive and have fewer negative interruptions than the male-dominated discussion.

“Women have something unique and important to add to the group, and that’s being lost, at least under some circumstances,” said Chris Karpowitz, the study’s co-author and an assistant professor at BYU.

The study focused on 94 groups made up of five individuals each. Group members were asked to perform “work” tasks to earn hypothetical amounts of money. Each individual was told they would take home earnings based on both performance and the group’s decision about how to redistribute the money earned as a whole. The groups were told to distribute the money in the “most just” way. On average, groups deliberated for 25 minutes, even though they were only required to deliberate the distribution system for five minutes. Participants voted by secret ballot, but half of the groups followed majority rule while the other half decided only with a unanimous vote.

Not only did the tone of the discussions change when women participated more, but the substance of the discussions shifted as well. When given the task of setting a group’s minimum wage, women tended to include discussions of family need and issues of care in the discussions. Researchers noted that women were more likely to ask questions like, “How does this affect a family?” or “How would a single woman do this?” And, what they were saying wasn’t just girl talk; girl action took place as well. Groups with a majority of women and groups led by consensus building were more generous with their reallocation of money.

“When women are silent, they’re not just silent and someone else is making the argument they would have made anyway,” Karpowitz said, recognizing the loss of ideas when women fail to give their input.

Dana Macario is a Seattle-area writer.

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