Study confirms that women don’t speak up as much when outnumbered by men

A new study confirms what most of us probably already know:

Scholars at Brigham Young University and Princeton examined whether women speak less than men when a group collaborates to solve a problem. In most groups that they studied, the time that women spoke was significantly less than their proportional representation – amounting to less than 75 percent of the time that men spoke.

This shit is maybe the most frustrating thing about being a feminist lady in the world every day, in my opinion. Because, as Lindy West points out, even loud-mouthed feminists often fall into this dynamic. “You forfeit, because their lungs are bigger, they’re groomed for assertiveness since birth, and you’re groomed to assume that nobody will take you seriously anyway. You wait for a pause in a room of interrupters.” I do this all the time. And the fact that I can feel myself doing it doesn’t really help usually–it just means I hate myself for it.

That’s why it’s great that instead of just offering an unhelpful reminder that women should take it upon themselves to overcome all their social conditioning and speak up more, the researchers suggest the “conditions of deliberation” should change. The gender gap in participation disappears when women are in the majority or when the decision being made must be reached by consensus rather than a majority-rules vote.

In formal deliberative environments–in the workplace, the school board, the legislative committee–this is useful advice. But in more casual settings, we might have to start by adopting Lindy’s pledge to refuse to be silent and just talk really, really loud. Because this actually matters. As one of the researchers notes, “When women participated more, they brought unique and helpful perspectives to the issue under discussion. We’re not just losing the voice of someone who would say the same things as everybody else in the conversation.”

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I’m a man – a few years ago, after hearing statistics like these, I spent a week counting how many times I interrupted men vs. women in my life, and was pretty shocked at how far apart the numbers were at the end of the week. I try ever since to be careful to notice when I’m interrupting a woman, stop, apologize, and ask them to continue. It’s amazing the kinds of things we can do completely by accident, and how hard it can be to notice ourselves doing them unless we’re watching ourselves very closely.

    • Rita Carlin

      High five, Sam! The world needs more people like you.

      • Sam Lindsay-Levine

        Thank you Rita, you’re very kind to say so. Honestly I was very embarrassed about the discovery, and at the time I thought that what the world needs is more people who can manage to avoid internalizing sexist behaviors against their will – but in practice that seems impossibly hard for most any of us flawed humans to do without a lot of deliberate self-examination and intentional counteracting behavior.

  • ERose

    “But in more casual settings, we might have to start by adopting Lindy’s pledge to refuse to be silent and just talk really, really loud.”

    I happen to do that naturally. I was born with an opinion, and in my family, you don’t get a chance to share what you aren’t willing to say over a crowd. I can tell you, it does work. When you’re assertive, you get heard.
    But I can also warn you that over and over again, you’ll look around and find that somehow, without knowing it, you just made the choice between being heard and being liked. When you’re the woman who speaks up, or even does a little interrupting of her own, you can go from zero to “easier in small doses” faster than you dreamed possible.
    Most of the time, it’s worth it. Nine times out of ten, it doesn’t even occur to me that it might have been better to stay quiet because it’s so obviously better that I spoke. That tenth time is when I find out I was the only one not invited out for beers after work on Friday, or when someone can’t quite muffle their sigh when I join a conversation.
    Women do it too, and that hurts worse than when the men do it. I expect it from men. When women do it, I find myself doubting my right to speak at all.

  • The Antitype

    Both those suggestions are asanine.

    Consensus is always the ideal, and very rarely achieved. Decisions that should take less than an hour of deliberation in a fast-paced world get slowed down and stalled out completely, often until the room decides ‘forget it, lets just go with the majority, we have other stuff to do’.

    As for the other point? What, we’re going to ensure that every decision making process is done in an environment with more women than men just to be sure the ladies feel comfortable speaking up?

    Sorry, I understand it’s a conditioned response and the culture should shift to encourage women to voice their opinion from a young age, but for people facing this difficulty today, in adulthood…. man up. Seriously.

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      I can’t help but feel your reading comprehension was lacking here. Consensus and female majorities weren’t suggestions at all; they were experimentally tested hypotheses of situations in which the effect would not take place.

      Ending your post with the exact same “offering an unhelpful reminder that women should take it upon themselves” that Maya specifically called out in her post, and giving it a pointlessly and obnoxiously gendered phrasing, is not any more intellectually impressive either.

    • Dom

      Using gendered inanities to command us to behave in ways that will reassure you all is well with the world is as stupid as telling the rain to go back where it came from.

      I am quite belligerent and have been accused many times of “acting like a man”. This was not intended as a compliment, apparently. The other word people use is “bitch”. Whenever I’ve tried to get a word in edgewise because no one is letting me speak, I get castigated for “interrupting” the men. They, however, have never been castigated for interrupting me. So get lost. You’re not saying anything useful and you are just a troll.

  • Lisa

    Having read about this study on both Jezebel and Feministing, I felt the need to comment. I am a person whose personality has always been to speak up – and consequently get shit for it throughout elementary school (in the 70’s) but steadily less shit as I have gotten older. I am at a point now where my career relies not only on my ability to voice my opinion, but also to make sure that my opinion is the one that matters – and this is in a male dominated industry (construction, millions of dollars, years of effort, etc.). Not only that, but I have to lead a team of very smart people with strong opinions and get them all on board with my ideas. There are a few things that I have learned about speaking up and being heard that I think are important:

    1) Some people are not going to like you, basic fact of life. Believe me when I say that this doesn’t matter – what matters is if you can get things done.

    2) Know what you are talking about and be willing to act on it. This means research and not giving up. Nobody really cares it if the important document is in Italian or if the person in charge of such-and-such is on vacation in Iceland – you track it down, get it translated, get their superior, figure out what it means and nail it to the wall.

    3) So far my language has been harsh – this is my inner voice. My outer voice cracks jokes 50% of the time. Mary Poppins had it right – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. People don’t notice if you are tearing apart their work if you make it fun for them (weird but true). I also make sure that when I do make corrections I don’t make it personal (as much as I want to!) Be neutral – this is the work that has been done, this is why changes need to be made, this why it need to be a certain way. Then, when it is done the way you want it – don’t be stingy in the praise or the credit. Tell people why their ideas are good, why their work is important, and why they matter.

    4) Crack jokes some more, especially when faced with sexism, subtle or blatant, and the more outrageous the better! I have never let sexism fly, no matter the perpetrator – instead I always call it when I see it, but make a broad joke about it. That way everyone gets the message, but because is it is a broad joke the offender doesn’t feel humiliated and the people that count know that I can stand up for myself.

    The sad fact is that sometimes no matter how smart you are, not matter how diplomatic you are, and how good at your job you are, you are one day going to be stuck in a no-win situation. I think that the important thing when that happens is to know when to cut your losses and move on. This can sometimes require poverty (been there, slept in that car) lots of drive, and a plan. The thing that can pull you down the most is denial and choosing denial over recognizing the problem and acting. If you choose denial years can pass and you will not have anything to show for it besides a skimpy resume, bad references, and not a lot of choices.

    That said, I feel pretty fortunate how my loud-mouth, boner-killer, femi-nazi life has turned out – and yes, that is how I introduce myself at parties!

    • Dom

      About this whole “Some people are not going to like you, basic fact of life. Believe me when I say that this doesn’t matter “.

      I beg to differ. When people dislike you, they will do everything they can to make sure you lose your job. Then you will not speaking anywhere, about anything. Been there, slept in that car.

      • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

        This is true, but it can be soul-killing to not speak your truth for fear of retaliations like that. Still, sometimes other strategies are necessary to figure out how you can get to a better place for yourself – whether that means going over saboteur’s heads, finding a different job, confronting them head on – these sorts of conflicts don’t have a “one size fits all” solution.

        And then, there will be people determined to dislike you no matter what you say or do, for reasons that probably have more to do with their own issues. So you may as well do what’s real. But then again what do I know, I’m really no good at holding back.

  • Adrienne

    This reminds me of a situation I was in a while back in a college (honors level) class where a non-traditional student that was probably 40 was saying some sexist shit in a class discussion. I could tell it was bothering people, and it sure as hell was bothering me, but it took me most of the class to build up my courage to say something. Because I knew, it has happened before, that if I am scared and I keep quiet, I always regret that more than not saying anything. I almost started crying while speaking up , though because of a) my anger and b) being exposed. Then I felt stupid. But I still don’t regret speaking up, because I think I might have at least made him realize he was a little bit of an asshole, because the subject was his daughters.

    I am a shy person, it’s not easy for me to be outspoken, but I also believe a lot of that could be the way my family and society raised me. My mother is a wonderful, wonderful person, but she never ever ever says what’s on her mind. What her husband, children, and family want are first for her.

    I struggle to figure out the different between putting others before you (which I believe is a good position to take in most situations, but unfortunately other people don’t do it back) and speaking your mind. I am a person with much, much more empathy for other people than most, and what frustrates me more than anything is most everyone elses’ lack thereof.

  • Shakira

    I’m a woman and I never “forfeit”, I ALWAYS speak up. I don’t care whose lungs are bigger, my voice has it’s own attention-grabbing qualities (hey midgets have the smallest lungs of all, you think they’re all submissive?); and despite what this author thinks I was raised to be assertive since birth, not to let people take control of me… mother and father DID NOT raise a doormat, sure they might be ahead of their time but they raised me right.

    Actually the mroe dominating a person is, the more I want to yell at them.

  • Brüno

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

    So the same old drivel, that any woman can do what a man can do, but when there are no women around, society misses out because of what women can do and men cant.

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      I think you are projecting or inventing something that this quote is not saying. I don’t think Karpowitz is saying anything essentialist or stereotyping about “what women can do and men can’t”; I think they are making the simple and ineluctable point that these people, who are otherwise being (inadvertently) excluded from the conversation, each possess their own unique and helpful insights as a result of them being a separate human being with their own knowledge and experience.

      It seems to me like you’re stepping up to get involved in a fight with nobody here on the other side.

      • Brüno

        I am not inventing anything. I am saying exactly what the quote is saying. If you think I am wrong, you are wrong and need to work on reading comprehension.