Speak Up! Women Lack Confidence in Debates

American women have made huge strides toward gender equality in the political arena since winning the vote in 1920. But according to politics professor Tali Mendelberg, they continue to lag behind men in the confidence with which they participate in political discussions. They speak up at only two-thirds the rate of men, and they do so with less authority, according to her studies.

In The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions, written with Christopher Karpowitz *06, Mendelberg examines the conditions that promote women’s participation in policy discussions and the conditions that discourage it. The pair looked at numerous studies of how groups such as juries, school boards, and legislatures deliberate, and ran a controlled experiment with 470 subjects in Princeton and in Provo, Utah, where Karpowitz teaches at Brigham Young University. The participants, in groups of five, discussed a hot-button issue, and researchers classified every interruption as either positive or negative.

In legislatures and school boards, there is a “social expectation for women not to be wielders of power,” says Mendelberg.
In legislatures and school boards, there is a “social expectation for women not to be wielders of power,” says Mendelberg.
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications

“We were able to pinpoint who was cutting off women,” Mendelberg says. “It was almost always men.”

Mendelberg says that was not surprising, and is partly due to women’s aversion to conflict. They tend to seek compromise and consensus, not “winning,” she says. But an even more significant factor, she points out, is their lack of confidence in the political arena. “There’s a strong legacy that continues of social expectation for women not to be wielders of power,” she says. That’s true even when their education and experience make them more qualified than men.

But increasing the percentage of women in a group won’t necessarily improve the dynamic, Mendelberg says. A crucial factor is which “decision rule” the group is using. According to the researchers, women in a group can increase their rate of participation, but only when the group makes decisions by majority rule. In groups employing unanimous rule, women had a lower rate of participation as their numbers increased. “Men step up their participation,” says Mendelberg. “We did not expect to find that.”

What gets lost when women are silent? The groups studied in the research — who discussed how generous a society’s social-safety net should be — were less likely to consider education, health care, and children’s welfare, says Mendelberg: “They are less likely to advocate for a generous policy toward those who are vulnerable.”