Women have long pointed out that it can be hard for them to speak up in groups with a lot of men — that’s one reason some advocate for single-sex education. Now researchers have quantified this phenomenon, and proposed two very different solutions.
Political scientists Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg and their team divided study subjects into groups of five with varying gender compositions, from all-female to all-male. Then they asked them to discuss how much each of them should be paid for a variety of tasks they’d be doing later — and, by extension, how society as a whole should decide issues of fair compensation for work. Some of the groups were told to make their decisions unanimously; others were instructed to use majority rule.
They found that when men outnumbered women, the women spoke less than their fair share — at least when majority ruled. In majority-rule groups with just one woman, each male participant got on average nearly 9% more talk time than each female one. And in groups with two women, each man still talked about 6% more. But in groups with four women and just one man, each woman talked about 2% more than each man did.
However, things were different when groups had to decide unanimously. In those groups, the gender gap was actually highest when there were four women — then male participants got 11% more talk time. In unanimous groups with just one women, the gap was quite small — each guy talked a little under 3% more than each woman.
Unanimity, Karpowitz, Mendelberg et al write, keeps outnumbered women from getting out-talked by majority men (it also protects men when women outnumber them). Karpowitz offers several possible explanations for this. One is pretty simple — if you have to decide something unanimously, you simply can’t afford to ignore anyone. But also, he told BuzzFeed Shift, “unanimity appears to lead to groups with a greater sense of warmth, inclusivity, and solidarity. […] These sorts of positive, warm environments appear to be especially important for women’s participation.”
But that doesn’t explain why in unanimous groups the gender gap is actually bigger when there are more women present. Karpowitz says that might be because “women interpret unanimous rule to mean that they should make at least some contribution — more than they would under majority rule — but that they should still avoid dominating the conversation.” By contrast, “men who are the minority under unanimity seem to interpret it as a signal to maximize their individual participation.”
Some of these differences may stem from social norms that will take a while to change — if, for instance, women feel like their primary responsibility is to include everyone, while men feel it’s most important to make sure they themselves are included. But Karpowitz’s research does reveal two things we could do right now to boost women’s participation in group settings: include more women, or make decisions unanimous (but, interestingly, not both).
Karpowitz and Mendelberg write that the groups they assembled resemble a lot of real-world decision-making bodies, including town planning committees and local boards of various kinds. With a few differences (the study subjects didn’t all know each other beforehand), they may also resemble business meetings. If groups like these took Karpowitz and Mendelberg’s findings into account, women might quite literally have more of a voice.