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Abstract

Given that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and that scientific innovations are increasingly produced by team collaborations, we reviewed the existing literature regarding the effects of gender diversity on team processes and performance. Recent evidence strongly suggests that team collaboration is greatly improved by the presence of women in the group, and this effect is primarily explained by benefits to group processes. The evidence concerning the effect of gender diversity on team performance is more equivocal and contingent upon a variety of contextual factors. In light of the importance of collaboration in science, promoting the role of women in the field can have positive practical consequences for science and technology.
© Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining 2011 DOI 10.1179/030801811X13013181961473
Published by Maney on behalf of the Institute
INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, Vol. 36 No. 2, June, 2011, 146–53
The Role of Gender in Team
Collaboration and Performance
Julia B Bear
Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
Anita Williams Woolley
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA
Given that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (Science,
Technology, Engineering and Math) and that scientific innovations are
increasingly produced by team collaborations, we reviewed the existing
literature regarding the effects of gender diversity on team processes and
performance. Recent evidence strongly suggests that team collaboration is
greatly improved by the presence of women in the group, and this effect is
primarily explained by benefits to group processes. The evidence concerning
the effect of gender diversity on team performance is more equivocal and
contingent upon a variety of contextual factors. In light of the importance of
collaboration in science, promoting the role of women in the field can have
positive practical consequences for science and technology.
keywords Collective intelligence, Team work, Women in science, Gender
diversity of teams, Team performance
Introduction
Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology,
Engineering and Math) on multiple levels, ranging from undergraduate and
graduate enrolment to positions in industry and at universities (National
Science Foundation 2009). Though some progress has been made to close this
gender gap in the past few decades with women’s enrollment increasing in
Bachelors and Masters degree programmes, the gap persists, especially in
managerial and other top-level positions in both corporations and academe.
A variety of reasons have been given for this gender gap, including bias and
discrimination, a lack of role models, differential access to social networks,
and issues related to work-life balance and family responsibilities (Blackwell
et al. 2009; Blickenstaff 2005; Fox 1991; Kyvik and Teigen 1996; Sonnert et al.
2007). In light of these potential causes, governments and universities conduct
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ROLE OF GENDER IN TEAM COLLABORATION AND PERFORMANCE
INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, Vol. 36 No. 2, June, 2011
mentoring and career development programmes for women specifically
aimed at closing this gap (Blickenstaff 2005; Cronin and Roger 1999). Thus,
the causes and proposed solutions are primarily framed on the individual
level, i.e. in terms of the way individual women confront these issues (Corley
2005). However, scientific work is not conducted in isolation, and scholars
have also pointed out the necessity of institutional solutions for closing the
gender gap (Corley 2005).
We maintain that, between the individual and institutional levels, there is
another level that plays a crucial role in scientific work — teams. Indeed, a
recent review of decades of scientific articles and patent applications has
revealed that our most important scientific innovations are increasingly
produced by collaborating teams (Wuchty et al. 2007). Moreover, recent
evidence strongly suggests that group collaboration is greatly improved by
the presence of women in the group (Woolley et al. 2010). Taken together,
these recent findings imply that promoting the role of women in STEM can
have positive consequences for scientific productivity by enhancing the
quality of collaboration taking place in teams. Thus, in order to both promote
more successful collaborations as well as improve our understanding of the
persistent gender gap in science, it is important to examine the effect of
gender diversity on team collaborations. With these aims in mind, we review
the existing evidence regarding the effects of gender diversity on team
processes and performance.
Effects of gender diversity on team process and performance
Does gender diversity matter for team processes and performance? This
question has been the subject of numerous empirical studies, meta-analyses
and literature reviews (e.g. Baugh and Graen 1997; Bowers et al. 2000;
Chatman and O’Reilly 2004; Ely and Thomas 2001; Jackson et al. 2003; Joshi
and Roh 2009; Mannix and Neale 2005; Myaskovsky et al. 2005; Pelled 1996;
Stewart 2006; Webber and Donahue 2001). Overall, existing research suggests
that gender diversity can have a positive effect on group process, while its
effect on performance is fairly equivocal and dependent to some degree upon
the context of the work.
In terms of group process, recent evidence strongly suggests that group
collaboration, as indexed by collective intelligence, is greatly improved by
the presence of women in the group (Woolley et al. 2010). The collective
intelligence of a system resides in the connections among the units and their
patterns of behaviour (Losada and Heaphy 2004). Collectively intelligent
patterns of behaviour are responsive to the accomplishment of desired
outcomes, rather than the mindless enactment of prescribed processes or
routines. This is akin to the ‘heedful interrelating’ discussed by Weick and
Roberts (1993) as supportive of the development of collective mind. ‘Heedful
performance is not the same thing as habitual performance. In habitual
action, each performance is a replica of its predecessor, whereas in heedful
performance, each action is modified by its predecessor (Weick and Roberts
1993, 362). Thus, collective intelligence is evident in the consistency of the
outcome quality a collective produces across domains, as a result of the
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INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, Vol. 36 No. 2, June, 2011
responsiveness of members to one another and to the shifting performance
contingencies in dynamic situations.
Woolley et al. (2010) found that the proportion of women in a group is
strongly related to the group’s measured collective intelligence. Upon further
examination, they found that the effects were explained in part by the higher
levels of social sensitivity exhibited by women, based on their greater ability
to read nonverbal cues and make accurate inferences about what others are
feeling or thinking. Groups with more women also exhibited greater equality
in conversational turn-taking, further enabling the group members to be
responsive to one another and to make the best use of the knowledge and
skills of members.
The findings of Woolley et al. (2010) are consistent with related research
on the effects of gender diversity on group process. In a study of group
performance in a business simulation, Fenwick and Neal (2001) found that
groups with equal numbers of men and women and/or groups with a greater
number of women than men performed better than homogeneous groups
on a management simulation task, and this effect was explained by more
effective collaborative group processes and cooperative norms. Likewise, a
study by Jehn and Bezrukova reported in Kochan et al. (2003) found that
gender diversity increased constructive group processes. In some cases,
however, the effects of gender diversity on group process also depend to
some extent on context. For example, in a study of a Fortune 500 firm in the
information processing industry by Joshi and Jackson, also reported in
Kochan et al. (2003), the authors initially found no effects for team-level
gender diversity on team cooperation. However, when they included regional
location of the teams in the analysis, they found a positive relationship
between team gender diversity and team cooperation within regions that
were diverse in terms of gender. Thus, contextual effects also play a role in
the effects of gender diversity on team processes.
These findings concerning the effect of gender diversity on group
process are also consistent with past work examining the effect of gender
on interpersonal communication in groups (Carli 2010). For example, in a
meta-analysis comparing men and women in terms of task and interpersonal
styles, Eagly and Johnson (1990) found that women were significantly more
interpersonally oriented than men. Men’s style was more autocratic than
women’s, i.e. involved giving orders, whereas women’s style was more
democratic than men’s, i.e. focused on participation. In addition, when
comparing all-female versus all-male groups, all-female groups demonstrate
more egalitarian behaviours, such as equal amounts of communication
among group members and shared leadership (Berdahl and Anderson 2005;
Schmid-Mast 2001). Finally, in conversation, men display more social
dominance-related behaviour while speaking than women, such as chin
thrusts, gesturing, and direct eye contact, while women engage in more
smiling whether they are speaking or listening (Dovidio et al. 1988).
These different interpersonal styles may help to explain the positive effect
of gender diversity on team processes and collaboration, since greater gender
heterogeneity increases the likelihood of participation among team members.
Research on gender and influence in groups has shown that men‘s and
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women’s level of influence is most equal in gender-balanced groups, further
reinforcing the relationship between heterogeneous gender composition of
groups and improved group process (Carli 2001; Craig and Sherif 1986; Taps
and Martin 1990). In addition, in an experimental study in which solo versus
majority status was manipulated (groups with two women and one man and
vice versa), solo women were less talkative than women in the majority
whereas the opposite was true for men (Myaskovsky et al. 2005). Similarly,
gender diversity also appears to have a positive effect on the psychological
experience of group members, with members of heterogeneous groups
reporting greater feelings of efficacy about their tasks (Lee and Farh 2004)
and better morale (Jehn et al. 1999) than members of homogeneous groups. In
sum, gender diversity benefits group processes in a variety of ways, and these
benefits appear to stem from gender differences in attitudes and behaviours
during group interactions.
In evaluating group performance, the effects of gender diversity become
slightly more complex. The results of several meta-analyses have shown
either no effects or slightly negative effects for gender heterogeneity of team
members on team performance, which is typically measured in terms of both
objective performance indicators, such as financial outcomes, as well as
subjective ratings of team effectiveness by team members and/or supervisors
(Bowers et al. 2000; Jackson et al. 2003; Stewart 2006; Webber and Donahue
2001). Other research has shown that the effect of gender diversity on team
performance depends upon a variety of moderators, such as task difficulty
(Bowers et al. 2000), type of team (Stewart 2006), the presence and activation
of social divisions or ‘faultlines’ within the team (Lau and Murnighan 1998;
Pearsall et al. 2008), and the other types of demographic diversity present in
the team (Pelled et al. 1999).
However, some scholars maintain that the preponderance of equivocal
findings does not mean that the effects of gender diversity are non-existent,
but rather that the effects should be investigated in light of organizational
context (Joshi and Roh 2009; Kochan et al. 2003). They argue that, since
empirical work on diversity in teams grew out of self-categorization theory
(Tajfel 1981), which concerns the ways in which the salience of differences
among team members can lead to certain attitudes and behaviours, contextual
factors become paramount for understanding the influence of diversity. In
other words, in male-dominated professions, where women are likely to be in
the significant minority, initially gender diversity is likely to have more
negative effects, given that gender stereotypes are more salient due to the
increased categorization of underrepresented women (Kanter 1977). In
contrast, in gender-balanced professions, negative stereotyping and
categorization by gender are less likely to occur and thus gender diversity
should be less problematic. This point is especially relevant to understanding
the role of gender diversity in STEM, given that most STEM professions tend
to be male-dominated.
Indeed, research shows that in occupations dominated by males, such as
teams of engineers, gender diversity has strong, negative effects on team
performance, whereas in gender-balanced occupations, gender diversity has
significantly positive effects on team performance both in terms of objective
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(e.g. financial outcomes, product quality) and subjective (e.g. self-rating,
supervisor rating) measures (Joshi and Roh 2009). These findings are
consistent with the work of Allmendinger and Hackman (1995) on the
integration of women into symphony orchestras. The integration of women
into male-dominated orchestras led to declines in member satisfaction and
social functioning when the proportion of women was below 50%, but as the
proportion increased, those trends flattened or reversed (Allmendinger and
Hackman 1995). This suggests that integrating women into traditionally
male-dominated fields may be difficult initially, but should get better as their
representation approaches parity with men. These effects should accrue as
greater participation of women in a setting allows for negative stereotypes
to fade and for their expertise and contributions to be more accurately
recognized. For example, in examining scientific collaboration more directly,
Joshi (2010) found no effects for gender composition of teams on productivity
and innovation, but found that when women’s influence in the group was
misaligned with their expertise (i.e. they had more expertise than others
attributed to them), the productivity of the team was negatively affected.
Implications for scientific teams
Overall, the findings from the literature concerning the effect of gender
diversity on team performance suggest benefits for team process but mixed
results for team outcomes. Despite the somewhat equivocal nature of the
literature, two consistent themes emerge — the importance of context in
moderating the effects of gender diversity on performance and the generally
positive effects of gender diversity on group processes. Both of these themes
are extremely relevant to scientific work and should also be taken into
consideration in light of the persistent gender gap in STEM.
Given that gender diversity is more likely to have a negative effect on
performance in male-dominated versus gender-balanced industries (Joshi and
Roh 2009), the lack of gender balance in scientific teams may be detrimental
to scientific innovation. Furthermore, the aforementioned research implies
that gender-balanced teams lead to the best outcomes for group process in
terms of men and women having equal influence (Carli 2001; Craig and Sherif
1986; Taps and Martin 1990), participating at an equivalent rate (Myaskovsky
et al. 2005) and being satisfied with their group collaboration experiences
overall (Jehn et al. 1999). Thus, having a few ‘token’ women on scientific
teams does not appear to be sufficient in order to improve performance, and,
based on past research could even have detrimental social consequence in the
short term (Allmendinger and Hackman 1995). In addition, scientific research
is conducted within teams of individuals with varying levels of expertise, in
varying career phases, and with a variety of demographic differences such as
gender, age, ethnicity and national origin. As Joshi (2010) demonstrated, in
this context, the effect of gender on performance may interact with other
dimensions of diversity such as expertise and status within the team, leading
the expertise of women to be underutilized, to the team’s detriment. In sum,
the underrepresentation of women in STEM not only means that scientific
teams may be missing out on female talent, but it also means that the women
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INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, Vol. 36 No. 2, June, 2011
who are members of STEM teams may not be participating to their fullest if
they are a significant numerical minority or solo members of teams.
Furthermore, the positive effects of gender diversity on group processes
are extremely relevant to scientific teams, since scientific discoveries are
increasingly the products of team collaboration (Wuchty et al. 2007). As
Woolley et al. (2010) showed, enhanced interaction and communication in
teams with greater numbers of women, as well as egalitarian rather than
autocratic norms, improve group processes, which, in turn, facilitate increased
collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is not correlated with the
intelligence of individual group members but rather with the quality of the
social interaction processes within the group, which are correlated with
the proportion of females in the group. Given the degree to which collective
intelligence predicts performance on innovative tasks as demonstrated by
Woolley et al. (2010), it is critical to higher levels of performance in the
scientific domain.
Conclusion
Gender diversity in STEM is often advocated for social and political reasons.
To be sure, enabling equal access to and participation in STEM fields is a
worthy social goal in and of itself. However, based on the evidence regarding
the effects of gender balance in teams, gender diversity can also enhance
group processes, which are increasingly important as collaboration becomes
a centrepiece in the production of science. The enhancement of group
processes and higher levels of collective intelligence can, in turn, lead to
greater innovation and scientific discovery. Thus, the findings reviewed here
imply that, when evaluating the gender gap in STEM, it is not enough to
simply examine the number of women in a particular institution or role. In
order to reap the rewards of gender diversity, it would be most beneficial to
ensure that women are represented in collaborative scientific teams at parity
to men. Thus, the current focus by universities and industry on individual
women’s career paths as a way to increase the number of professional women
in STEM is laudable. However, in order to be truly effective, the role that
women play in scientific teams should also be taken into consideration and
promoted in order to yield the substantial benefits of increased gender
diversity.
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Notes on contributors
Dr Julia Bear is currently a Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Technion —
Israel Institute of Technology. She received her PhD in Organizational
Behavior from Carnegie Mellon University. Her research interests include
gender, negotiation, and conflict management.
Correspondence to: jbear@tx.technion.ac.il
Professor Anita Williams Woolley is an assistant professor of Organizational
Behavior and Theory at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon
University. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from Harvard
University. She conducts research on collective intelligence and team
performance.
Correspondence to: awoolley@cmu.edu
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