When Women Predominate in Groups: Stigma Contagion

Women in Engineering or Information Technology organizations may find themselves the only person using the women’s restroom, one advantage in light of well-documented workplace challenges associated with minority status.
Men face similar challenges when they work in Human Resources, Marketing, or Communications, where more women are employed.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Vicki Belt

Vicki Belt

Despite potential isolation of experiencing gender minority status, Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter advised women who wish to advance: ”avoid the Ps: Personnel, Public Relations, Purchasing, to avoid being “pigeonholed in a female ghetto.
This recommendation was validated by Vicki Belt, then of University of Newcastle, and noted that technical women often intentionally avoided female-dominated groups.

Tessa West

Tessa West

In fact, both women and men held implicit biases against women-dominated groups, found Research by NYU’s Tessa West, Madeline Heilman, Lindy Gullett, and Joe Magee with Corinne Moss-Racusin of Yale University.

Madeline Heilman

Madeline Heilman

The team organized five-person groups to perform “a male-typed cooperative task” as quickly as possible.
Groups differed in proportion of women to men:

  • 2 women and 3 men
  • 3 women and 2 men
  • 4 women and 1 man.
Lindy Gullett

Lindy Gullett

Groups with more women performed equally well as the group with more men.

Joe Magee

Joe Magee

However, when the number of women increased in the work groups, participants’ evaluations of  the group’s effectiveness decreased. Similarly, both women and men offered lower ratings participants’ contributions when more women were in the work group.
Both men and women in the same group judged their own team mates more harshly when their groups have a greater proportion of women.

Corinne Moss-Racusin

Corinne Moss-Racusin

Group gender composition also negatively affected team cohesiveness:  After 10 weeks, those who worked in groups with more women said they were less interested in working together again.

West and team suggested that women in work groups may be subject to “stigma-by-association,” when negative evaluations of a stigmatized individual spread to an associated individual.
As a result, men who work with women may be subject to a “contagion effect” and may be perceived as having similar stereotypic strengths and weaknesses.

Carol Kulik

Carol Kulik

Hugh Bainbridge

Hugh Bainbridge

The prevalence of stigma-by-association in the workplace was conceptualized by University of South Australia’s Carol Kulik with Hugh Bainbridge of University of New South Wales and University of Melbourne’s Christina Cregan in a “masculine” performance task.
Women were evaluated as less competent at “masculine” tasks, and this negative evaluation was also assigned all group members through stigma contagion.

Michelle Haynes

Michelle Haynes

NYU’s Heilman extended her work on women’s perceptions of their capabilities in an ingeniously-designed study with Michelle Haynes of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

They asked participants to work remotely with another person on tasks traditionally associated with a male role:  Acting as a managing supervisor at an investment company.
Volunteers were paired with male or female “partners,” but each volunteer actually acted alone without a teammate.

When female participants received positive group feedback, they “gave away” credit to men “teammates” unless their contribution was specific and indisputable.
However, women showcased their accomplishments when they worked with female “partners.”
Women systematically undervalued their contributions to group problem-solving when they collaborated on teams with men, but not when they work with other women.

This study demonstrated that women’s expectations and beliefs about their work contexts, themselves, their peers, and organizational superior influence how they construe group feedback on performance.
Women may continue to limit their advancement when they implicitly accept micro-inequities and limiting performance stereotypes.

Anita Wooley Williams

Anita Wooley Williams

An unexpected positive finding about women’s role in work groups emerged from work by Carnegie Mellon University‘s Anita Williams Woolley, with Christopher F. Chabris of Union College, and MIT’s Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone, who demonstrated that the “collective intelligence” of collaborative group members exceeds the cognitive abilities of individual members.

Christopher Chabris

Christopher Chabris

In fact, the average and maximum intelligence of individual group members did not significantly predict the performance of their groups overall.

Alexander Pentland

Alexander Pentland

This means that a group’s performance is more dependent on interaction behaviors and norms than on individual cognitive capabilities.
These findings support Emotional Intelligence theory’s assertion that self-management and interpersonal behaviors are more important to individual achievement than measured intelligence.

Nada Hashmi

Nada Hashmi

Wooley’s team assigned nearly 700 volunteers to groups ranging between two and five members to work on visual puzzles, negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments.
Collective intelligence of each group accounted for only about 40 percent of the variation in performance on this wide range of tasks.

Thomas W. Malone

Thomas W. Malone

The remaining 60% contribution to collective intelligence depends on members’ “social sensitivity“:  Accurately perceiving each other’s emotions, and ability to more equally share conversational turns.
Groups with more women excelled in both capabilities, and the team noted that accurate social perception and conversational turn-taking skills that may be further developed with attention and effort.

-*How can workplace Inclusion and Diversity programs mitigate the impact of stigma-by-association?

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2 thoughts on “When Women Predominate in Groups: Stigma Contagion

  1. Pingback: Biased Time Perception – Mind Time, Clock Time, and Einstein | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

  2. Pingback: Self-Stereotypes Still Limit Women’s Performance | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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