Thursday, September 25, 2014

Are Two a Crowd?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has discussed how she was often confused with Sandra Day O’Connor when they sat on the Court together, despite not looking alike and holding significantly different ideological views. It’s important to note that this mistake was not made by passersby being interviewed on late night television but by the lawyers arguing before the Court itself.

This is one of many examples that Professor Denise Lewin Loyd employed at this week’s WAPPP seminar, "Are two heads always better than one? Stereotyping of minority duos in work groups," to explain the unique problems that individuals who are part of the minority on boards, task forces or committees often face. Loyd, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, argues that in many cases, being part of a minority duo on a larger team is even worse than being the only minority.

Past research indicates that single minorities within a group are often subject to “token pressure,” whether in the form of increased visibility, stereotyping or pressure to assimilate. Loyd conducted a study of 228 students on the issue, which concluded that this token pressure leads to discomfort, demonstrating that it’s a negative experience for the minority groups in question.

Though we might assume that token pressure would decrease when another minority member is added to the group, there is evidence to the contrary. Research featured in the Harvard Business Review even suggests that the presence of two women on a board may be seen as a subgroup and that those individuals have to give extra care to not look like they're conspiring.

Professor Loyd tested this hypothesis via an experiment she conducted with colleagues Mary Kern of Baruch College, CUNY and Judith White at Dartmouth. Using avatars, Loyd et al collected responses from 170 male participants to see how they viewed women in different settings in which they were the minority. Participants were asked to read a narrative involving a female employee who was part of a team where she was (1) the only woman, (2) one of two women or (3) one of three women on a team of seven, ten or 14. The decision-making and production tasks assigned were relatively agnostic so as to control for the fact that certain tasks may be perceived as more masculine or feminine.

Loyd et al found that women were viewed as significantly less potent and marginally warmer as part of a duo than while acting solo. While there are some limited situations where warmth is advantageous, being perceived as less potent is a clear negative. As part of a trio, women were not seen as less potent but were perceived as marginally warmer than as a duo. A second study involving female-minority groups performing a complex task revealed that men gave female duos worse performance evaluations, despite no significant difference in completion time and quality.

This research suggests that there is something uniquely negative about being part of a minority duo in a larger group. The phenomenon could be partly explained by the claim that minority duos make the category to which they belong more salient to the greater group. This could be a concern for women, who while still significantly underrepresented on corporate boards and in public office, are slowly gaining ground.

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