New Study from University of No Shit Finds Women Speak Less When Outnumbered By Men

Last week a study headed by a Brigham Young researcher finally made its way around mainstream media. Titled “Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation”, the study basically confirms that women speak less when outnumbered by men. With its provocative, but swiftly qualified conclusion, the study was quickly picked up and dissected by the internet. The collective response was a resounding “ummmmm”, especially from women’s sites, namely Feministing and the Cosmo blog.

The study approaches the presence of gender inequality in decision-making environments from a political science perspective, and finds that how much both genders speak depends on both the gender make up of the group and the type of decision they’re trying to make. It does not, however, look at why women might speak less in front of men, what social norms and cultural forces might make women feel like they need to keep a lid on it around groups of men. The questions we know lie at the bottom of gender inequality.

What the study does suggest is how to counteract this social inclination in boardrooms and beyond, tweaking the guidelines on which deliberative decisions are made, which you can translate for yourself below:


When women are outnumbered by men, use unanimous rule; when women are a large majority, decide by majority rule. To avoid the maximum inequality, avoid groups with few women and majority rule. To minimize male advantage, assemble groups with a supermajority of women and use majority rule. To maximize women’s individual participation, gender- homogeneous groups are best.


It ends on a kind of heartening note, with the authors also confirming that what women have to say is usually more creative and constructive than whatever their testosterone addled cohorts are saying, and recognizes that institutional rules about cooperative decision making have an effect on gender dynamics.

The study is another piece of scientific research that makes at least me initially feel pretty icky, like the ones that show we match our eating patterns to whoever is eating the least or there is no such thing as pet heaven. I’d rather believe that women’s speaking less in the presence of men was anecdotal than that it is a studied social phenomenon. It’s also another study that I could probably have done without getting out from under my comforter.

Because Sarah Lawrence is where the Hermione Grangers of the world go to talk over each other during class, it is interesting to think of the study in the context of the college.

While it is possible to be in a class that is mostly male, this is significantly less likely than being in a class with all women. I’ve had classes where the lone guy has been steamrolled by our collective feminine power, and ones where they have been just as outspoken.  As a sophomore I took a class on the public understanding of medicine that was all girls, and our discussions soon turned quickly to birth control, ovarian cysts, and nightmare ob-gyn visits. Would we have been quite so eager to share our stories if there was a boy at our pill party? And would that have changed what we gained from the class?

The question of what more males would do to SLC has been around campus since the school first experimented with boys in 1967. A 2006 issue of Sarah Lawrence Magazine covered our history of “creeping coeducation”, but not much has changed. Though the male population has grown 12.5% in the passed four years, our gender ratio is still just shy of 3:1. SLC is moving glacially to the day that a girl might feel too intimidated altogether to speak up in class. We are, and probably always will be, regarded as a girls’ school.

Further, gender is far more fluid at SLC than Brigham Young, and these distinctions of a what is a woman’s and what is a man’s voice are probably a lot less important to the students here. On the whole, we care more about the mind than the body that’s holding it.





  • Reply September 28, 2012

    Scott Calvin

    It’s worth noting that the fraction of women enrolling and graduating from college nationally is moving steadily higher, while Sarah Lawrence floats around that 3:1 figure. Thus, the ratio at Sarah Lawrence is becoming less and less exceptional, not because Sarah Lawrence is becoming more like the rest of higher education, but because the rest of higher education is becoming more like Sarah Lawrence–in this respect, at least.

  • Reply August 30, 2013


    Hey I can actually offer some data very relevant to this — My stats group last year conducted a study comparing participation among genders in SLC seminars. No gender was found to statistically significantly participate more than another gender in our sample. The only exception was when only looking at seminars within the Humanities, students assumed to be female (we couldn’t ask students’ gender identity without giving away the purpose of the study or invading student privacy) participated statistically significantly more than students assumed to be male. When analyzing the correlation between the gender ratio of the class and class participation, higher female ratio was very weakly correlated to higher class participation. Basically, gender/gender ratio doesn’t seem to influence class participation at SLC according to the study (except for maybe some outspoken females in literature classes). Unfortunately none of the seminars in our sample had a majority of students assumed to be male, so I can’t offer any evidence for whether the effect in the study you talked about in your article holds true at SLC.

    One teacher told me she wasn’t surprised by the results of our study and from her observation thought race plays a significant role in class participation at SLC.

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