Women speak less in groups when outnumbered, according to a new study by politics professor Tali Mendelberg published in the American Political Science Review.
Mendelberg said she chose to conduct this study because she was interested in determining how “inequality might affect participation in public settings.”
She worked with Brigham Young University professor Chris Karpowitz GS ’06 to determine group dynamics in which women are the minority. Mendelberg explained that many public settings involve discussions, including town meetings, hearings, clubs, residential associations and religious institutions.
Mendelberg explained that the purpose of her research is to find out whether women exercise their voices as much as men do. She added that she aims to determine whether women affect group discussion to the same extent when they do speak and to recognize how the gender disparity affects decision-making in various group environments.
Mendelberg and Karpowitz found a significant gender gap in participation within group settings.
Fortunately, this gender gap shrinks and even closes entirely under the right institutional designs, Mendelberg said.
“One of the things we see is that women don’t always under-participate: There are conditions in which they come much closer to equality,” Karpowitz said.
The researchers found that when women are the majority of the group, women participate as much as men do. By changing the gender composition where majority rule is used for decision-making, women tend to participate more.
Additionally, when women are few but decisions are made through unanimous consensus, the dynamic changes quite substantially. The gender gap closes as men realize that the women’s voices are just as valuable and necessary, Karpowitz explained.
“Creating a norm that values inclusion of all members of the group is very important,” Karpowitz said.
In groups where the objective is not to make a decision but merely to discuss a certain matter, the gender disparity is also apparent. While the study didn’t focus on such groups, Mendelberg and Karpowitz both conclude that awareness of the dynamics of group settings and the way in which those dynamics affect participation is necessary.
“The direct implication in our study is group level conditions matter a lot,” Karpowitz said.
Women are more likely to participate at equal rates in groups that create a more supportive and ultimately warm environment, Karpowitz explained. Creating such a dynamic setting in which women and men feel collegial is crucial to achieving full gender equality.
The University has also examined the issue of gender disparity in discussion. "It’s true that in my classes when women are in a minority, men tend to dominate," said Wilson School professor Nannerl Keohane, who led the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership.
Keohane explained that in some situations, even when women are not the minority, the participation gap between men and women still exists. Keohane said she believes that in such situations, instructors ought to give students a couple seconds or minutes to collect their thoughts after a question is asked, which could encourage participation from students who are normally silent.
Furthermore, if participation remains skewed, Keohane recommends that instructors encourage students by saying, "All right, we had four questions from guys. I’d like the next person to be a woman." She said she believes that with such an approach, women feel welcomed, emboldened and more willing to speak. Keohane emphasized the notion that women are more likely to be more self-confident if they are mentored and encouraged.
Keohane recognized The American Whig-Cliosophic Society as an organization that is effectively aiming to close the gender gap as more and more women are participating in debating events and activities.
The authors explained that if society becomes more aware of gender gaps and more sensitive to the dynamics of various groups, gender equality can be achieved. They clarified that sometimes the number of women in a group needs to increase, while other times groups need to be made more supportive environments.
“Just being aware is important,” Karpowitz said.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/07/31404/