What Videotapes of Male-Dominated Work Teams Showed
Women methodically marginalized; how to maneuver around the guys
As body cams are revolutionizing the issue of police brutality — irrefutable proof is so much stronger than mere witness accounts — so might an experiment in videotaping workplace teams convince skeptics about the seemingly unalterable process by which women are railroaded into silence and powerlessness on the job.
Sure, any woman with work history can tell you about the male co-worker on her team who wouldn’t stop talking or stop asserting himself. Skeptics, male perhaps, will nevertheless wonder if the woman is exaggerating. Even women wonder.
Olga Stoddard, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, faces this daily at her economics department, where faculty men outnumber women by more than 10 to 1. “I often notice these dynamics, and I find myself either blaming myself or questioning whether I’m making this up,” she says. And she’s an expert.
Until recently, researchers like Stoddard had to rely on surveys and worker recollections, or on observations of relatively brief lab studies, where mixed-gender teams would interact for a few hours at most. Not quite like the weekly grinding one takes from Mr. Blowhard in real life.
This all changed when Stoddard and Chris Karpowitz, a professor of political science at Brigham Young, partnered with a top college accounting program to randomize teams for a full semester of 20-hours-per-week assignments. They audio recorded meetings to measure metrics like speaking time and engagement, and analyzed individuals’ work to see what effect gender composition had on performance and participation.
Being awesome is not sufficient
The answer: not good. Women on male-majority teams were deeply handicapped, and consistently became less influential than both men and women were on female-majority teams.
“The women were incredibly accomplished,” Karpowitz says. “If anything, they entered the groups with more leadership experience than the men. Yet deficits in authority and influence persisted. That suggests that these gaps are difficult to overcome, and that simply being awesome at everything is maybe not sufficient.”
Confirmation of the syndrome — you’re not imagining it — is helpful. And there are things you can do to navigate your next male-majority team.
Tip #1: Skip leaning in. Yes, of course you are pure professional magic. But spewing even more hyper-competence in the workplace won’t help. “Our research shows that there’s very little that you can do as a woman in the minority,” Stoddard says. She found that even women doing absolutely top-notch work with participation equal to men’s still experienced an influence penalty when in the minority. “That contradicts a lot of the lean in literature that suggests that if only women just speak up or become more confident and participate more, they can overcome the influence gap. That’s not what we find, unfortunately.”
Tip #2: If you can, push for a majority-female team. One or two more women doesn’t fix anything, because current research suggests that women remain disadvantaged as long as they are in the minority.
Tip #3: Consider not taking the role. Will a gig where you’ll be less prominent and important than your teammates harm your career? Do you even want that job? Is there another team where you’d find more success?
Tip #4: Change what you can. Karpowitz suggests focusing on other processes around influence, such as participation and how decisions are made. For example, if men are consuming more talking time than women, the team might consider a guideline that everyone speaks once before second turns. Or perhaps a decision-making tactic that favors those getting trampled, such as accepting written proposals for a vote, or shifting to majority, unanimity or consensus decision-making.
Tip #5: Make allies on your team. Find supportive men who recognize the situation and will advocate for female teammates. You’ll probably have to explain it to them. “Men have the same levels of influence whether they are in the majority or minority, and it doesn’t affect their interactions and team dynamics,” Stoddard says.
Tip #6: Strategize. Women gain some influence over time, as teams get to know each other and interact more (though still remain far behind the influence of men, and of women in women-majority groups). With that in mind, time your efforts accordingly. Perhaps Day 1 is not the moment to pitch your brilliant idea.