Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Speaking Up at Meetings

There is an interesting article on the TODAY web site of MSNBC about different behaviors of women and men in meetings, with some unexpected twists and turns.  It is authored by Seattle-area writer Dana Marcario and reports on a study by researchers Chris Karpowitz of BYU and Tali Mendelberg of Princeton published in the American Polical Science Review.  The study finds that women speak up 25% less than their male counterparts in meetings where they are in the minority, which is not the case with men when they are in the minority.

Quoting co-author Tali Mendelberg for Princeton:
“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.  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.’”

However, the situation changes drastically when women form the majority or when a consensus is required.  Not unexpectedly, women speak up when in the majority, but this also happens when they are in the minority but the group needs to reach a unanimous conclusion.

I really like this quote from Ms. Marcario on unexpected things that happen when women do speak up:
"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."

So there is a silver lining to this report.  Yes, women often speak less in meetings to their detriment.  But, in the right situations, they pipe up and change the dynamic of the group for the better.


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  2. Valian discusses this in Why So Slow (1998) and cites a paper from 1992 (Haslett,Geis, & Carter). Women learn that it is better to keep quiet than to speak up and gain disadvantage. This is also in the talk I gave in the CSWA session on Unconscious Bias (posted at http://www.aas.org/cswa/unconsciousbias.html).

    It's nice that new studies keep reaffirming what has been found previously (on various topics like this), but I'm mildly perplexed by the reporting that indicates it's new knowledge. And frustrated. Why is is so hard for this kind of evidence to remain known? Why does it fade so easily in the public eye again and again?