Women Significantly Less Likely to Speak in Group Discussions

group discussion
They found that in most groups women spoke significantly less than their proportional representation, speaking less than 75 percent of the time that men spoke. eschipul/flickr

Women tend to speak less when they're outnumbered, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Brigham Young University and Princeton University conducted experiments in group decision making and found that "having a seat at the table is very different than having a voice."

They found that in most groups in the study, published in the journal American Political Science Review, women spoke significantly less than their proportional representation, speaking less than 75 percent of the time that men spoke.

"Women have something unique and important to add to the group, and that's being lost at least under some circumstances," said lead study author Chris Karpowitz, from BYU, said in a statement.

However, researchers noted that there is an exception to the rule of gender participation. 

The team found that time inequality disappeared when researchers told participants to decide by a unanimous vote instead of majority rule, suggesting that a "consensus-building approach" was particularly empowering for women who were outnumbered by men in their group.

Co-author Tali Mendelberg, from Princeton, said that the latest findings can apply to many different settings.

"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," Mendelberg said in a statement. "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."

Karpowitz and Mendelberg had observed 94 groups made up of at least five people. They had asked participants to, in groups, discuss the best way to distribute money they earned together from doing a hypothetical task.

Results of the study showed that on average, groups deliberated for 25 minutes before coming to a conclusion.  All participants voted by secret ballot but half of the groups followed the majority rule while the other half decided only with a unanimous vote.

Surprisingly, the groups arrived at different decisions depending on women's participation.

"When women participated more, they brought unique and helpful perspectives to the issue under discussion," Karpowitz said. "We're not just losing the voice of someone who would say the same things as everybody else in the conversation."

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