Air Time Matters: Speak Up in the First Five Minutes of a Meeting

More than thirty years ago, University of Florida’s Marvin Shaw observed that participation in small group approximates the 80/20 Principle:

Marvin Shaw

Marvin Shaw

In a 5 member team, 2 members make 70% of comments
In a  6 member team, 3 members make 70% of comments
In a  8 member team, 3 members make 67% of comments

Most of the comment contributors were men, and those who speak most are typically viewed as most influential, according to Melissa Thomas-Hunt of University of Virginia.
This suggests that women can be at a disadvantage in groups if they don’t speak up.

Melissa Thomas-Hunt

Melissa Thomas-Hunt

Thomas-Hunt found that women were less influential in small groups even when they possessed specific expertise in survival skills, a stereotypically male endeavor.
Further, women with elite knowledge were judged as less expert by others.

Conversely, men who possessed expertise were more influential than expert women.
Overall group task performance was affected by these dynamics:  Groups with a female expert made less accurate assessments than groups with a male expert, perhaps because females’ expertise was discounted or ignored due to gender-related expectations for specific competencies.

Christopher Karpowitz

Christopher Karpowitz

Women spoke less when there are fewer women in a group, but not when women predominated and decisions were made by majority rule, according to Christopher Karpowitz of Brigham Young University, Princeton University’s Tali Mendelberg and Lee Shaker of Portland State University.

Tali Mendelberg

Tali Mendelberg

They also found that women spoke equally in small groups when there were few women but the decision required unanimous vote.
One implication is that women benefit from building consensus when they are in the minority.

Powerful women who talk more than male counterparts incur backlash from both male and female observers, according to Victoria Brescoll of Yale.

Victoria Brescoll

Victoria Brescoll

In an experimental study, both female and male volunteers read about a female CEO who talked longer than others.  They judged her as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who was reported to speak for the same amount of time.

A high-power woman who talked much less than others was judged as equally competent and capable of leading as a high-power man who talked much more than others.
Raters were less generous in their ratings of a high-power male who talked much less than others:  He was judged as equally incompetent and unsuitable for leadership as a high-power female who talked much more than expected.

This suggests that both men and women are punished for behaviors different from gender-role expectations.

Lee Shaker

Lee Shaker

Women’s tendency not to speak up in groups begins well before they enter the workplace, found Harvard’s Catherine Krupnick.
She and her team investigated differences between male and female students’ participation in classroom discussion and the impact of the instructor’s gender on students’ participation.

They reviewed videotapes of 12 women and 12 men instructors, and concluded that male students talked two and a half times longer than female students when the instructor was male and the majority of the students were male — a frequent situation in many educational and work organizations.
On the other hand, female students spoke almost three times longer when instructors were female.

Women students were interrupted more frequently than their male counterparts, most often by other women, and leading them to withdraw from the discussion for the remainder of the class.

Krupnick posited that women’s lower participation in classrooms – and perhaps in other small groups – may be explained by their:

  • Unwillingness to compete against men,
  • Vulnerability to interruption,
  • Unwillingness to interject into men’s and other women’s long uninterrupted statements, known as “discourse runs,”
  • Individual differences in assertiveness, confidence, and speed of formulating responses.
Elizabeth Aries

Elizabeth Aries

Amherst’s Elizabeth Aries noticed that groups composed entirely of women students tended to have a participatory style in which women took turns and spoke for about equal amounts of time throughout the class hour.

In contrast, male groups appeared more contest-like, with extremely uneven amounts of talk per man.
They competed by telling personal anecdotes or raising their voices to establish hierarchies of participation, and this competitive style persisted in mixed-gender groups.

Kathleen Welch-Torres, then of Yale, compared women’s and men’s assertiveness in class discussions at Yale and Brown (mixed-gender institution) with women’s class participation at Wellesley and Smith (single-gender).
She reported that women at both of the mixed-sex institutions were verbally less assertive than men, by using “hedges,” qualifiers and questioning intonations.
However, women at the single-gender institutions Smith and Wellesley were more assertive than women at Yale and Brown and more assertive than men at the coeducational institutions.

Larraine Zappert

Larraine Zappert

Kendyll Stansbury

Kendyll Stansbury

Welch-Torres linked these behaviors to measures of self-esteem and her findings are similar to those of Stanford’s Laraine Zappert and Kendyll Stansbury  who reported that female graduate students held lower self-esteem, less trust in their judgments, and greater fear of making mistakes than male graduate students.

Recommendations to help women move toward fuller participation in small groups from Melissa Thomas-Hunt and Margaret Neale of Stanford include:

Margaret Neale

Margaret Neale

  • Before a meeting:
    • Ask trusted attendees to:
      • Support your ideas during the meeting,
      • Solicit your input in the meeting,
    • Refer to your specific expertise during the meeting,
    • Set a goal for number of contributions in the first five minutes of a meeting.
    • In a meeting:
      • If interrupted: Restate, rephrase and provide specific evidence based on expertise,
      • Showcase  others’ expertise by soliciting their input,
      • Create environment in which  other participants have equal opportunity to participate,
      • Urge members to consider each alternative, rather than disregarding suggestions presented by “lower status” individual.

-*How do you ensure that your expertise is recognized and influential in small group settings?

*What “best practices” do you apply to ensure active participation by women and minority-group members?


Twitter:    @kathrynwelds
Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary
LinkedIn Open Group Psychology in Human Resources (Organisational Psychology)
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©Kathryn Welds


1 thought on “Air Time Matters: Speak Up in the First Five Minutes of a Meeting

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Richard J. Smith (Blog: – Twitter: @rsmithing) writes:
    You make a great point about speaking up early in meetings. Along the philosophy of the primacy-recency effect, that’s one more way to be seen as a contributor – as long as what you say has some meaning. Great advice.



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