Women’s Voices in Decision-Making: Let’s Create Equitable Spaces

by | October 18, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Jasmine Peterson

A few weeks ago Feministing posted a piece about a study that had been conducted examining the ‘gender role’ hypothesis – that is, the hypothesis that the lower the number of women in a group, the less likely women are to participate and influence that group, and the greater the gender gap in participation and influence.

The study’s conclusion: women do, in fact, speak less when outnumbered by men (surprise, surprise). The response to this research study seemed to elicit a big “no shit” from feminists in the blogoshpere. Because, living as a woman, or even just as an aware feminist ally, don’t we see this all the time? Men don’t even have to make up the majority of those present for women to be silenced, a lot of the time.

I don’t think men consciously want to silence women, or that women are inherently passive. These gender differences have a great deal to do with our socialization – boys are encouraged to be assertive, to be leaders, and to be confident. These same qualities in females are often perceived negatively; a woman who is confident, assertive, and ‘loud’ is considered a bitch, as Lindy West acknowledged in her reaction to this study. And as Lindy says, this IS , indeed, a tremendous problem.

Women are expected to be nurturing, supportive – ornamental even – but not assertive leaders with something intelligent to contribute. That kind of threatens the status quo. But women participate in this old double-standard themselves, because many of us find ourselves getting quiet when in public spaces so as not to be perceived as bitches. A lot of the time, being a strong woman is a very delicate balancing act, because if you’re just a little too strong, you risk losing all of your credibility and legitimacy because at that point, you’re just labeled “bitch”. And who wants to lose their legitimacy?

We don’t really need research to illumine this phenomenon, because many of us have lived experiences in which we, for some reason or another, did not provide our own opinions, perspectives, or expertise in a certain situation, whether in the office, the classroom, or even in athletic, recreational, and personal spaces, for fear of being labelled, because men are dominating the conversation, maybe due to the fear of being perceived as less competent than male peers, or for any number of reasons. Silencing happens a lot, even to those who are being loud and taking up the metaphorical space with their presence (I tend to be one of those women who asserts my presence when I feel I have something important to contribute).

Of course, this research is also very important because it lends to and supports theory that may inform better decision-making practices. For example, this particular study arrived at several conclusions about how best to facilitate effective communication and decision-making in which participation and influence is equitable:

  1. Consensus decision-making ought to be used when women are outnumbered by men (unanimous rule was demonstrated to produce more equitable participation and influence when women were outnumbered, but also for minority males)
  2. When women are in majority, use majority rule
  3. To avoid situations in which the greatest inequality occurs, avoid having groups with few women and majority rule
  4. Groups with a supermajority of women using majority rule tend to minimize male advantage and finally,
  5. Gender homogeneous groups are the best way to maximize individual female participation

So, we know that women tend to participate less when they make up the minority of a group, particularly if that group is using majority rule based decision-making. But what this research also does is give us information about how to best facilitate the participation of females in decision-making, and that’s a pretty tremendous contribution.

When I read the Feministing piece and Lindy’s piece at Jezebel, my first reaction was to dismiss this as fruitless research telling us what we already know – that women often don’t receive equal talking time when in mixed gender groups. But when I sought out the research study, it was clear that it goes beyond that. Now the trick is to convince businesses, governments, agencies, and other groups to implement these strategies to ensure more equitable participation and influence for women.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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