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To Maximize Benefits of Group Diversity, Men and Women Must Speak Up

diversity / research

When women are outnumbered in team settings, they tend to contribute less to discussion. Yet, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, on the occasions when women do participate, they wield more influence. The takeaway: Organizations that want to reap the benefits of diversity should encourage those contributions. 

The paper, "Participation and Influence: The Countervailing Forces of Expertise Use in Diverse Groups," published at Academy of Management Discoveries, studied over 100 groups and was coauthored by Rosalind Chow and Anita Williams Woolley, associate professors of organizational behavior and doctoral student Anna Mayo.

Woolley said the findings apply to women and men if either gender is in the minority of a group. Both genders tend to get lost in the discussion because they participate less, even when they have relevant expertise, possibly because they assume they won't be heard.

"But interestingly, if they do participate, and they have expertise, they are listened to — perhaps even more than those in the dominant group," Woolley said.

Chow said that those in the minority typically don't want to speak up because they already feel different, and if the information they offer differs from the consensus, they may feel uncomfortable with further highlighting their uniqueness. They may also fear that they won't be given enough credit for their input. However, the reason their opinions carry more weight is because the group is prepared for a new perspective, she added.

"When people see others who are different, they expect them to have different information," Chow said.

The participation of minority members is an important driver in improving team performance, so organizations would benefit from giving minorities more legitimacy to speak up in group settings, she said. 

Woolley said the findings are consistent with other literature, which shows that even when women have the most expertise in a topic, they tend to remain silent. She added that while she and Chow studied the pattern as it relates to gender diversity, it also applies to people who are culturally and racially diverse.

"If you don't speak up, there's no way for the group to figure out who has more expertise and listen to them," Woolley said. "You know more than you give yourself credit for, and it helps your group if you speak up. And you'll have influence."