Gender disparities and the science of women in organizations and teams

For Women’s History Month, the National Science Foundation asked social, behavioral, and economic scientists to share details from their research about these disparities and what might be done about them.

Today, three researchers share their thoughts on the science investigating women in organizations and teams.

What should people know about broadening participation of women in STEM?

Lise Vesterlund, professor of economics, University of Pittsburgh

Credit: University of Pittsburgh

Equal opportunity for advancement is central to broadening participation by women. It is becoming clear that to secure equal opportunity, we need to understand the allocation of tasks in the workplace. Across fields, we find that women spend more time on tasks that are unlikely to secure career advancement.

In industry, the difference is seen in women spending more time on non-revenue generating tasks or on “office housework” as described by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in 1977. In academia, it is seen in female faculty spending more time on teaching and service. While curricular development is essential for the institution, assignment to such tasks reduces the time available for research and may in turn hinder promotion.

Equal advancement opportunities require that we understand why the allocation of work tasks differs. If preferences and abilities are the explanation, then there is limited cause for concern. We conducted laboratory experiments to determine whether task allocations differ when preferences and abilities are ruled out. The laboratory setting mirrors that of finding a volunteer to take on a less-promotable work task. A group is asked for a volunteer for a task that benefits the group but places the volunteer at a relative disadvantage. While some volunteer for such tasks as the office holiday party because they enjoy them, our experiments removed the possibility of this element of joy.

We find that women are more likely to volunteer, that they are more likely to be asked to volunteer, and that they are more likely to say yes when asked to take on tasks that benefit the group more than themselves. That is, our experiments show that even when the task is purely taking a “hit” for the team without any potential for joy in the work, women still take the hit more than men.

The resulting difference in work tasks is not simply an issue of equality. If individuals do not have the same opportunity to demonstrate performance on promotable tasks, then they won’t have the experience to justify promotion, and the most qualified candidate may not be the one promoted. To make a difference in extending opportunity, we need both to recognize how task allocations differ and to change the way less-promotable tasks are assigned. Random assignment and turn-taking are likely superior to asking for a volunteer.

The issue of disproportionately allocating tasks is critical in academic fields with underrepresented groups. Administrators seek a diversity of voices on the many committees that help academic institutions function. Of course, diversity is important, but when you are one of two women in a computer science department or the only African-American in the engineering department, it means you spend more time on committees away from the research that can gain you tenure. We need to find better ways to listen to diverse voices without inadvertently harming the ability of these diverse voices to succeed.

Read about Vesterlund’s research on gender and competition in the workplace

Anita Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, Carnegie Mellon University

Some individuals are more intelligent than others, showing increased ability to perform a variety of cognitive tasks. Yet when intelligent people form groups, sometimes the groups they form are very bad at solving problems. We sought to understand why some groups solve problems better than other groups, and, in two studies looking at many different group sizes and compositions, we found a set of characteristics shared by most groups that are good at solving problems. We call this collective intelligence, or the “c factor,” and groups with a higher c factor are better at solving problems than groups with a low c factor.

What is the c factor? As one might expect, since smart people sometimes work poorly in groups, it is not strongly related to the intelligence of individual group members. Instead, the c factor is associated with the social perceptiveness of the group members, the widespread use of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group. A group high in these characteristics has a high c factor, and that predicts better problem-solving abilities than a group low in those characteristics.

We have since gone on to replicate this basic result in more than a dozen studies. In each, we repeatedly observe that including more women increases social perceptiveness, improves participation in conversation, and consequently raises collective intelligence.

Thus, people should know that, given the importance of scientific collaboration to address our most difficult problems, including more women in those collaborations will improve science as a whole and benefit society as a result.

Cailin O’Connor, assistant professor of philosophy, University of California, Irvine

Credit: Cailin O’Connor

Collaborative research is now central to most sciences. When scientists (or members of any field) work together in groups though, inequalities can arise based on the amount of work scientists do and on how they are credited for that work.

Social norms tend to favor men when it comes to bargaining over resources like time and credit. Investigations of academic groups show the same: In many cases, women are less likely to receive authorship, less likely to hold prestigious author positions, and less likely to receive credit from promotion committees for collaborative work.

My research uses mathematical and computational models to ask: What sorts of social dynamics lead to these inequitable patterns? How does this inequity influence academics’ choices about whom to collaborate with? And, what can we do about it?

One lesson we’ve learned is that when you have a group of people divided into social categories, like men and women, this division dramatically changes the processes by which the group develops norms for bargaining over resources, time, and credit. Without social categories, groups tend to head towards equal divisions, but social categories provide built-in asymmetries between people that ground behavioral choices and alter group dynamics.

Notably, our models do not include bias or innate differences in capability between men and women, but we still see inequalities emerge. This means that anti-bias training may not be enough to reduce inequity! The way we learn, plus social categories, seems to be enough on its own to reproduce social inequities. Instead, we may need to think in terms of structural interventions, such as randomized authorship order and listing time contributions to projects to help solve the problem of apportioning academic credit.

As inequitable norms emerge, one might expect women to minimize their collaborations with men, since when they work with men they do more work and receive less credit. This can decrease the diversity of research teams. In other words, inequitable credit sharing and group diversity are deeply intertwined, and, to promote one, we need to solve the other.