Do women speak less when when there are more men around?

A recent study conducted at Brigham Young University and Princeton has revealed that significant gender inequality still exists for women when debating issues in mixed-gender settings. According to new research, when compared to men, women are less inclined to speak and share their opinions when they're outnumbered. Given the importance of speech as a means for self-actualization and group decision making, the study shows there's still much work to be done to ensure equal representation at any kind of bargaining table.

And what's most striking (if not disturbing) about the study is the degree to which women choose to silence themselves in such settings (whether it be consciously or unconsciously). The research, which appeared in American Political Science Review and was led by Chris Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg, revealed that women speak 25% less than men when they're outnumbered — and as much as 35% less in particular cases.

The research indicates that women, in any number of settings requiring deliberation, are not necessarily being heard — even if they're present.

To reach this conclusion, Karpowitz and his team gathered volunteers to be part of a group and discuss the best way to distribute money they earned together from a hypothetical task. The participants were broken up in 94 groups with at least five members each.

It took each group about 25 minutes to reach a decision on the best way to do it. They voted by secret ballot — but half of the groups followed majority rule, while the other half decided only with a unanimous vote.

During the discussions, however, the researchers took note of the group's gender composition, while recording the length of time each individual spoke-up to have their opinions known.

Surprisingly, the time disparity disappeared in those groups where the vote was conducted by unanimous vote instead of majority rule. What this indicated to the researchers was that women were more inclined to speak-up in consensus-building scenarios — even when more men were present.

And interestingly, for those groups in which women spoke up more than usual, their final decision swayed from the other groups; they tended to express more generosity to the lowest member of the group — a powerful indication that female perspectives can not only influence group decision making (which is hardly a surprise), but can also result in otherwise unconventional or unconsidered conclusions.

In terms of how this research can help to give women a more pronounced voice, the researchers say it's not simply a matter of awareness — that women should simply speak up more and men should encourage them to share their opinions. Rather, Karpowitz and his team suggest that the rules of engagement be revised.

Specifically, when women are outnumbered by men, groups should use unanimous rule. When women are a large majority, they should decide by majority rule. Moreover, group compositions should be avoided with few women and majority rule, while groups should be assembled with a supermajority of women and majority rule. And to maximize women's participation, groups should be assembled with an equal proportion of men to women.

The entire study can be read at American Political Science Review.

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