Do Women Need to Learn How to Speak Out in a Crowd?


Most of my life has been spent in groups of men and women.  First, my family of six.  Then elementary school classrooms.  Then more school, including business school, where 100% of our work occurred in study groups.  Then actual business, with its endless small meetings and large presentations, as well as a few nonprofit boards, where all work again occurs in groups.

What’s always puzzled me is how reluctant the women in all of these groups have been when it comes to expressing our opinions.  If even one man is present, I find women wait to listen to his views before expressing ours. (I find myself reluctant to speak first, as well.) Many a female colleague will share brilliant ideas one-to-one before and after the group discussions.  But during the meetings, we often sit frozen, as if someone had pushed an invisible mute button on all the female mouths in the room.

Turns out there is scientific evidence behind this weird and frustrating dynamic.  Researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute conducted scientific studies to explore how the brain processes information about social status in small groups, and how perceptions of one’s status can affect IQ.

“We started with individuals who were matched for their IQ,” said Reed Montague, who led the study. “Yet when we placed them in small groups, ranked their performance on cognitive tasks against their peers, and broadcast those rankings to them, we saw dramatic drops in the ability of some study subjects to solve problems. The social feedback had a significant effect.”

Especially on the women.

The men and women involved were very smart, with similar mean intelligence scores of 126, compared to the national average of 100.  But during group discussions, some individuals’ “expressed IQ” decreased in reaction to signals about their status within the group.

Neither age nor ethnicity showed a significant correlation with performance or brain responses. A significant pattern did emerge along gender lines, however. Despite having the same baseline IQ as the men beside them, significantly fewer women (3 of 13) were in the brainiac group. Significantly more women (10 of 13) fell into the dumb-and-dumber cohort.

“Over 80% of the people whose IQ diminished in group settings were women,” explains Montague.

This translates to: women feel intimidated and tongue-tied in groups with men if we perceive them to have higher status, so we come across as less intelligent.  We are women, hear us roar – unless we are in a group that includes men.

I’ve witnessed this myself over the years: even the smartest, best-educated women speak up less frequently in groups that include men.  We worked hard for years to earn a spot in these elite conference rooms.  But once there, many of us speak less confidently, less persuasively.  Those good ideas stay stuck inside our brains, released afterwards one-to-one to someone whose IQ and status we perceive to be equal – our female colleagues.

This findings made The Today Show with businesswoman Ivanka Trump giving her two cents.  Anchorwoman Ann Curry – no dummy herself — puts a positive spin on the research:  women can, and do, use our sensitivity to subtle social cues as a form of emotional intelligence, to read people and situations more quickly and accurately than men.  We just have not yet found a way to translate this sixth sense into widespread power, persuasion and value in the workplace.

Knowing the dynamic is real and that it affects women despite our accomplishments and intelligence – understanding that women aren’t actually less gifted than men, we just are hamstrung in certain social situations – hypothetically might help us overcome our hesitation to speak out and make ourselves heard in group settings.

But The Today Show brings up another smart question: with women holding 48% of all jobs in the U.S. today, do women need to adapt to the male-dominated work world and force ourselves to overcome an inherent, biological reticence — or does the world need to change the way group discussions proceed in order to address, and capitalize on, women’s different approaches to expression?

Perhaps a bit of both.  Compromise, after all, is another traditionally female strength.



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