Friday, March 15, 2013

The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions

Imagine for a moment that you are the head of a neighborhood council, a mayor organizing your city council meetings, or the president of a local worker's union. Though the mix of women and men in your group has started to even out over the years, you're finding that the official minutes of your meetings indicate otherwise. Men still make most of the comments on record, and file most of the motions. You're concerned that women's perspectives - and those of the women they represent - aren't being captured. What do you do?

Tali Mendelberg, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, discussed her research at yesterday's WAPPP Seminar that explores how gender gaps in representation affect women and men's voice and influence in small decision making bodies. Professor Mendelberg's research began with the hypothesis that there is a relationship between a group's decision rules, its gender balance, and the representation of women's voices.

By studying five-person School Boards, she found that the gender composition affects both the amount of time women speak, and the types of issues discussed. When there are at least three of five women in the body, it increases discussion of women's issues, or "care" issues, but only if the group makes decisions based on majority rule. If the group follows unanimous rule, where all five people must agree to pass the resolution, then women's issues are discussed more only when men outnumber women.

As for talk time, or discussion participation, women spoke significantly less than men UNTIL there were four women included in a five-member body. That's an 80% tipping point!

How was this measured? Professor Mendelberg and her team looked at the time men and women spent speaking in the group, and found that gender parity was only reached when women were the majority and the group followed majority rule. The group with unanimous rule found its gender parity declining as the number of women in the group increased. These findings carried over to the frequency at which "care" topics were discussed and the number of times women first mentioned these topics.

Professor Mendelberg's research into gender parity in group composition, both in body and voice, and how that impacts the group's decision making processes is a fascinating starting point. Meetings are the backbone of democracy. As more deliberative bodies -- boardrooms, neighborhood councils, even congressional commissions -- find themselves with an increasing number of women (or not!), they would be well served to consider the rules they follow to guide conversation and decision-making.

Further research could help indicate whether these findings carry over to dynamics of other minority groups: how does race, ethnicity, nationality, class, sexuality, or disability factor into deliberative processes? Our identities are multi-faceted, as are our proclivities to express ourselves and hold firm with our convictions and desired outcomes in diverse groups.  If you were that leader described in the opening of this post, what would you do? How would you incorporate the voices of minorities in your group, and assure that group decisions reflect their concerns? The research presented yesterday indicates that not only should you look at the composition of your group, but you should look to the rules that you follow, as well.  The rules that permit the highest integration of diverse views may shift, depending on the makeup of the group.

Valerie Kane is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School

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