Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Gender and Groupthink: Why Don't Smart People Share Their Ideas?

As the cliche goes, we are social animals. We eat in groups; we learn in groups; some of us hunt in groups. And very often, we make lots of big decisions in groups---from corporate boards to faculty committees and elected bodies.

But in those groups, do the best ideas always get adopted? Do they even get contributed to the mix?

What's particularly tough is when good ideas from half of the people in all groups are immediately ruled out. As research by Katherine Phillips and Melissa Thomas-Hunt explored back in 2004, groups across cultures have difficulty recognizing, let alone encouraging female expertise. This is often due to their group dynamics---whether the effects of social networks, group think, or even plain sexism.

But in last week’s WAPPP seminar on “Gender and Group Decisions: Eliciting and Acting Upon Expertise,” Katie Baldiga Coffman, Assistant Professor at Ohio State University, showed how, even in the absence of explicit group dynamics, women are less likely to put their own--often better--ideas forward.

In a controlled experiment at Ohio State, women and men offered their answers in a trivia game--first as individuals, later in blind groups, and finally in groups in which they saw their partners’ faces.

The results? Men contributed their answers more often than women, across categories; women under-contributed even in the subjects in which they were more comfortable about their expertise; and interestingly, even being provided feedback about their strengths did not improve efficiencies in information sharing.

So, even without competition, and with encouragement, talented women were less likely to contribute their better ideas to a group.

How can we fix this to improve efficiencies and make sure that (i) women are more comfortable with contributing their ideas, and that (ii) smart people contribute their good ideas more often? Can we design mechanisms or shape environments that “nudge” people to share and decide according to merit?

Taking a tip from the nudging process from last week's seminar, what would happen if we change the role models that women see--rather than just provide personal feedback--so people get more used to seeing women being successful, and start to associate women with success too? When people start getting used to seeing things a certain way, will they start getting used to doing them--including sharing and adopting the best ideas?

What are some other ways of nudging a system towards the best answers---towards social equity and social efficiency?

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