Study: Want More Female Leadership? Use Consensus, Not Majority Rule

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As startups, mega-corporations, and governments strain to promote women leaders in technology, new evidence suggests that the relative timidity of women may simply be a function of voting procedure. When men outnumber women, groups who strive towards consensus decisions, rather than majority rule, see greater female participation. “Unanimous rule protects minority women, and under this decision rule they take up their equal share of the conversation,” explains a new study in Political Science’s preeminent, journal, The American Political Science Review. For those organizations that have bought into the premise that females add valuable perspectives, this new research is a simple way to solve a perennial issue.

The experiment randomly assigned different proportions of men and women into deliberative groups, charged with figuring out how to allocate financial rewards to each member based on hypothetical work tasks [pdf]. The researchers coded how often women spoke compared to men and whether their peers judged them as “influential” in post-activity surveys.

When groups decide how to allocate money by majority rule, and there’s only one woman in the group, the one woman contributes less than half of her share of the conversation, compared to the men. Under consensus rule-making, that proportion jumps about 50 percent, garnering near equal participation from men and women.

“Under unanimity, no voice can be overlooked because every vote is pivotal,” they write. “This rule helps minorities by elevating their level of participation.”

But the gender disparity is not entirely a function of being outnumbered. Women, by genetic or cultural factors, behave differently in groups. “In small group discussion, on average men tend toward individual agency, women toward cooperation…Therefore, women in a numerical minority may interpret unanimous rule to mean that they should make at least a minimal contribution, more than they do in majority rule, but avoid dominating the discussion.

Interestingly, under more female influence, the allocation of money is also more egalitarian, offering more money to the least among their peers. The study’s results seem to have analogues in the real world: After Norway adopted gender quota laws for public companies, one study found that greater female leadership resulted in less workforce reductions [pdf].

I suspect not all of our readers agree with the premise that women should be proactively included in decision-making. But, for those who do, this research could have immediate benefits.