Research Findings

Token women’s voices in male-dominated teams

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September 17, 2020

When there is a token female in a team of all males, does she speak up with suggestions and concerns related to the team task? And if she does, when are her ideas acted upon by the team and does this matter for team performance?

In our paper, we propose that it really depends on the leader’s gender beliefs and the nature of the task. When the team leader holds more positive beliefs about the capabilities of women, they are more likely to signal to the team that the token females’ ideas are worthy of consideration. This counteracts negative evaluations associated with tokenism and gender stereotypes, and at the same time, bolsters the likelihood her ideas will be attended to, processed, and enacted by the team. 

This further translates into team performance when the task is highly complex. Highly complex tasks require exploration and divergent thinking to reach an appropriate solution, whereas low complexity tasks have obvious solutions and do not benefit from ideas that deviate from that solution. Because the token female’s ideas likely differ in content from those of her male counterparts’, enacting her voice likely enhances team performance on high complexity tasks, but may potentially harm team performance on low complexity tasks.

We tested our theory in the United States Marine Corps – a branch of the military that, at the time, was not yet fully gender integrated. We recruited active duty men and women to compose either all-male teams (i.e., teams with five males) or female token teams (i.e., teams with four males and a lone female). The teams then completed four tasks that were either high or low in complexity, and high or low in physical demand. In addition, for each task, a member of the team was randomly selected to serve as the team leader. Using live observation techniques, we captured voice by coding how much each member spoke up with suggestions and concerns regarding the team task. We captured voice enactment by coding the extent each member’s ideas were acted upon by the team. Lastly, we captured team performance by examining how quickly the team was able to complete the task. 

Our findings revealed that token female voice was enacted more than the voice of a randomly selected male in an all-male team when the team leader possessed more positive beliefs about the combat readiness, leadership, and physical capabilities of women in the military. In addition, enacting the token female’s voice led to higher team performance on highly complex tasks, compared to enacting the voice of a randomly selected male in an all-male team.

Perhaps even more interestingly, in our supplemental analyses, we found that enacting the voice of the male majority on these same tasks led to poorer team performance. This occurred not necessarily because token females had better ideas, but because she had different ideas, which may have led to more deliberation and ideation that enabled the team to reach a creative solution needed to accomplish a complex task. 

On the other hand, enacting token female voice led to lower team performance on low complexity tasks, potentially because her divergent ideas and the extra deliberation and ideation that followed unnecessarily delayed the team from executing on the most obvious (and most likely best) approach.

Our findings matter for several reasons.

First, we show that token females do get their voice enacted in male-dominated teams – but this is greatly facilitated when leaders possess more positive gender beliefs. This finding, we hope, encourages token females to speak up, even when they are in the minority. This finding also holds important practical implications from the standpoint of selecting and equipping leaders with positive beliefs around the capabilities of certain minority groups.

Second, we show that acting on token females’ voice matters for performance on highly complex tasks. Importantly, her voice frequency did not matter for performance. This finding indicates that simply having token females present is not sufficient for achieving performance benefits on high complexity tasks. She needs to be present, she needs to speak up, and her voice needs to be enacted.

Third, despite the many physical arguments (e.g., concerns about women having less upper body strength and endurance than men) against gender integration of certain occupations in the Marine Corps, we show that there is a cognitive advantage of having a token female on the team and acting on their ideas when tasks are highly complex. Given that battles are not won merely by physical strength and action-first strategies, our work indicates that these cognitively-based advantages of token women need to be weighed alongside the physically-based disadvantages when examining the implications of gender integration.

Read more

Crystal I. C. Farh, Jo K. Oh, John R. Hollenbeck, Andrew Yu, Stephanie M. Lee and Danielle D. King. “Token Female Voice Enactment in Traditionally Male-Dominated Teams: Facilitating Conditions and Consequences for Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: skeeze via pixabay

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