Women speak less when they’re surrounded by men. (And also: snow is white.)

This just in from the realm of totally unsurprising but still super-interesting science news: a new study in American Political Science Review suggests that women speak less (dramatically less, in many cases) than men when men outnumber women.

But it’s a little more complicated than the headline:

There is an exception to this rule of gender participation, however. The time inequality disappeared when researchers instructed participants to decide by a unanimous vote instead of majority rule.

Results showed that the consensus-building approach was particularly empowering for women who were outnumbered by men in their group. . .

For their experiments, Karpowitz and Mendelberg recruited people to be part of a group and discuss the best way to distribute money they earned together from a hypothetical task. In all, the researchers observed 94 groups of at least five people.

On average, groups deliberated for 25 minutes before settling the matter. Participants voted by secret ballot, but half of the groups followed majority rule while the other half decided only with a unanimous vote.

Notably, the groups arrived at different decisions depending on women’s participation – swinging the group’s stance on the level of generosity given to the lowest member of the group.

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

By way of commentary, the fabulous Lindy West writes:

HA. That is just about the truest shit that I have ever heard. I (and, I suspect, pretty much any woman) can access that feeling really quickly and vividly—when you find yourself in conversation with a circle of men and, against your better judgment and all your feminist impulses, you just turtle up. You retire. 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 interruptors. Sigh. I do it like crazy, and I am a fucking loudmouth feminist yelling machine.

Can I hear an “amen!”? Against my best wishes and against my better judgement, this is how I feel almost every time I talk philosophy with a bunch of guys. And I’ll hazard a guess that I’m not alone in that feeling.

(Luckily, our profession doesn’t place much weight on being quick and dazzling in conversation. Otherwise women might be at a disadvantage, given their proportional representation. Oh wait. . .)

25 thoughts on “Women speak less when they’re surrounded by men. (And also: snow is white.)

  1. It’s not just a matter of clamming up–I find that in a group like that, unless I’m very senior to all of them, that the guys don’t want to listen to me They just want to listen to each other. So even if I do speak I get talked over, or nobody follows up the point, etc.

  2. I bet they would get a different result if the women were lesbians. It’s usually straight women that clam up and I get funny looks for asserting myself and I know a lot of other dykes who don’t shut up either.

  3. That is interesting, elfkat. Do you know, or have a sense of, whether lesbians are less prone to stereotype threat?

  4. I’m not a lesbian but definitely an aggressive loudmouth as anyone who knows me will attest. I’ve certainly felt the pressure though, and also on occasions been ignored and talked over–unless I shouted louder. However on the plus side one reason I got into philosophy was that in philosophy classes and later in the profession my assertiveness was more tolerated than it was elsewhere, and even occasionally rewarded. Repeatedly I’ve discovered that when I behaved in the way I normally would in a philosophical context–even in another academic discipline–I would get the incredulous stare, and worse. I actually got kicked out of a theology program because one of the instructors with whom I had what would pass in a philosophy class as an enjoyable, perfectly appropriate argument, complained. And she turned up course evaluations by students saying that I’d ruined the class for them. And, really, I’m a little eccentric and flashy, but most people find me entertaining.

  5. having worked for a long time in fields dominated by men, I can say without a doubt this is true. Even when I was the boss, I often had a problem getting my voice and opinion heard. At first only by yelling, thus becomeing ” the bitch ” did I get them all moving in the right direction and the jobs done. Later on I learned to just let them mill around and do nothing for a while, untill my boss noticed the siruation. Then I began to speak in a very low voice, they listened, but the big boss had to walk over to the truck befor they did. Men do not like to hear womans voices in authority.

  6. what anonymous#1 said.
    Also, re: efkat– I’m not straight either, have been ‘out’ since I was 16 yrs old, and one of the very hard things I’ve had to accept (or try) recently is that I am very much subject to this phenomena. Working on it being less so. It’s true that I tend to clam up more in circumstances where it seems clear that the ‘boys’ aren’t listening (especially when I’m getting that particular condescending voice the message of which is, “let me school you on this thing that I’m going to proceed acting as though you know nothing about, without bothering to even consider the possibility that you might know as much as I do, or maybe even have an overlapping set of information from which I might learn something…) Of course, one alternative to clamming up in such situations is pointing out what’s going on– but for me, what often happens there is that another stereotype threat enters into the picture: that of being perceived as the “aggressive” or “angry” woman (and ime, the tendency to interpret non-straight out women as ‘aggressive’ in this way is heightened) Too often, that threat leads me to clam up and thereby betray myself.
    ymmv, of course.

  7. Here in Wisconsin a current anti-Tammy Baldwin ad (she’s running against mealy-mouthed Tommy Thompson for Senate) simply has one point: Tammy Baldwin is radically out of touch with Wisconsin values. And how do they forcefully make the “point”? By showing Tammy shouting “You’re damn right we’re making a difference!” at the beginning of the ad and later just the “You’re damn right. . .” at the end. The ad, by a group called Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Karl Rove, so cynically and sickeningly relies on a built-in prejudice against strong women speaking their minds that I shake with anger every time it comes on.

  8. Great post and discussion. I’ve been mainly in literary group situations and it never fails to amaze me how long-winded and loud the men can be. It doesn’t have to be a majority of men either. They “take up their space” in a big way. I felt immediately connected to elfcat’s comment as I’m also a dyke who won’t shut up. I challenge the men and don’t feel any need to let them dominate the discussion. Personally, this is because I don’t give a rat’s ass about what men think of me, not on ANY level.

  9. Have I felt/been excluded from conversations with male philosophers? Let me count the ways…this includes finding men in a conference session I organized and chaired having nothing to say to me before they disappeared to talk together.

    I think there’s some evidence for saying we do internalize others’ expectations. I remember walking up to a poster session, seeing the “o god, now a boring woman…” look, and finding it much harder to go on.

    I actually think this situation is a bit better now

  10. The flip side is that since so many males are educated from early childhood to imagine that whatever they have to say is brilliant, they tend to be much more long-winded, pretentious and boring than women.

    Sartre, who, in my opinion, is one of the most brilliant and awake thinkers on record, says (I can find the quote if anyone is interested) that he finds the majority of males to be boring conversationalists and that he prefers talking to women.

  11. SW, as soon as you mentioned Sartre, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this passage from Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice:

    “In some cases it will be hard to say whether a given moment of epistemic under‐confidence is one‐off, or whether it should rather be seen as part of an ongoing process of erosion. A striking example is found in Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. In it she recounts a philosophical skirmish with her friend and fellow student Jean‐Paul, where one cannot help but read between the lines (despite de Beauvoir’s uncritical authorial point of view) that he does her a testimonial injustice. There is real pathos in the fact that even the mature de Beauvoir writes in apparent innocence of the wrongfulness of Sartre’s undermining treatment of her, not to mention its tiresome bullishness, and she recounts the experience thus:

    ‘Day after day, and all day long I measured myself against Sartre, and in our discussions I was simply not in his class. One morning in the Luxembourg (p. 51 ) Gardens, near the Medici fountain, I outlined for him the pluralist morality which I had fashioned to justify the people I liked but did not wish to resemble: he ripped it to shreds. I was attached to it, because it allowed me to take my heart as the arbiter of good and evil; I struggled with him for three hours. In the end I had to admit I was beaten; besides, I had realized, in the course of our discussion, that many of my opinions were based only on prejudice, bad faith or thoughtlessness, that my reasoning was shaky and my ideas confused. ‘I’m no longer sure what I think, or even if I think at all,’ I noted, completely thrown.'”

  12. Philodaria:

    What is sad is not so much how critical Sartre is of de Beauvoir’s pluralist morality, but de Beauvoir’s conclusion that she is not in his class, when we, so many years later, see both of them as major thinkers, in exactly the same class.

    From my experience, males (and I’m sure that Sartre is no exception) often see arguing with a woman as an opportunity of quasi-sexual “conquest”.

    The ideal would be to liberate all arguments, dialogues and discussion, be they between men and women or between two males, from the underlying sexual background, of “who’s on top?” which you find in Plato already.

    After all, we could frame dialogues and discussions in more ludic terms or in terms of dancing or of choral singing.

    So too we could frame sex in terms that don’t recall wrestling.

  13. shouldn’t this study control for body size? I’ll bet anything smaller men speak less in the presence of larger men. I haven’t read the study, so maybe it does.

  14. Decades back, my all-women’s college went co-ed. We had very few male peers for the first few years, but even my male professors noted that the guys just talked, whether or not they had done the readings or knew what they were talking about.

    And, yet, I notice more and more that it is the young male students in my classes who just have *nothing* to say. Is this because they have internalized the message that being unprepared is bad?

  15. P.S. One problem I have noted over the years is that even when a woman speaks up, her ideas are often ignored – until a male makes the same point.

    No one wants to be in the position of saying, “But I just said that!” So, I find it a very good thing for other women – or alert men – to sort of make the point: “I think that is what Chris was saying a few minutes ago.” and then, ” Maybe she could expand on it?” or “I want to build on that.” If no help is forthcoming, then I just get all enthusiastic in response to the same point being made by a man: “Yes! That’s exactly what I meant when I said…”

  16. @ChrisTS

    I hope you aren’t assuming that if individual males do not speak up in class that it must be because of their unpreparedness. Men are fully capable of being shy or lacking in confidence or having a psychological disorder that prevents them from speaking. Obviously, being a man/woman is only one of the predictive factors which lead to a lack of class participation (race and mental health are the ones that leap immediately to mind).

    PS Sartre sucks and Beauvoir rulllez

  17. it sounds like the study controls for a number of factors that might lend themselves to an alternative explanation, but it doesn’t control for body size. that’s a serious concern, because it means that an alternative explanation hasn’t been ruled out. it could be that women are speaking less when surrounded by men because women who are surrounded by men are probably surrounded by people who are bigger than them. Indeed, Lindy West inadvertently endorses this hypothesis when she points out that “their [men’s] lungs are bigger.” Until a study has been done that controls for body size, this study doesn’t give any evidence that women speak less because of gender intimidation. It could be that people, men and women, speak less because they are intimidated by people who are larger than themselves, and men tend to be larger than women.

  18. James, is your claim really that a scientific study can’t lend any evidence for a hypothesis until all competing explanations have been ruled out?

  19. Fair enough. the penultimate sentence of my last post should be amended to read “doesn’t give conclusive evidence.”

  20. @Jarrod:

    No, I don’t assume that, but there does seem to be a contrast between what I saw in classes as a young woman and what I increasingly see as a professor.

  21. This is also problematic becuase an individual’s performance in such discussions is then often used as a basis for judging her ‘smartness’. This then influences the individual’s reputation in the department and (in the case of post-grads) references.

    And this does not hold only for discussions in formal settings such as seminars, visiting speaker talks etc. The same holds true for discussions in the bar and café. And woe betide you if you choose not to hang out at such places…

  22. Re: lesbians, generally, being less “clammy” than straight women, generally, I think that is too broad a claim to support, and may be based on generally accepted stereotypes /popular images of dykes. I was outspoken as an “out” graduate student, then lost a good portion of my self-esteem (and energy) as a result of forces the full nature of which I am not privy, as well as a lost job, and now I waver, depending a little perhaps on how far from the “general feel” of the group I believe my ideas may be and how much energy I have for scornful looks.

  23. i do not speak less around men. maybe that is because i am a tomboy. in my day – i am 65-most girls where brought up to get married instead of a career. i loved knowledge. dispised girl talk. men where the interesting people. i learned from them. most of my employers were men and they always promoted me. apart from one female in management, women treated as competitor and were not nice at all. where as men also were sending me off to classes, talking to me about improvement and asking for my imput and following through with it. also most women were hard asses. i never felt inferior around men but that could have a lot to do with been a tomboy as our brains are more like men. also my father and teachers encouraged me in my activities. like to hear some feed back on this if anyone is interested. paulina

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