Female Factor

Science is a subject available to both genders and yet women, if not directly discouraged, haven’t been encouraged to pursue it as a field of study. Girls are steered toward languages and the liberal arts, implying that maths and sciences are better left to the boys. It’s a stereotype that’s been torn down, and yet the gender imbalance is still apparent in the field of scientific research and academics.

We see it in the make-up of the participant rosters for the Sandpits and Ideas Labs we run. These events host between 18 and 35 people, depending on the type of question and the funding available. Usually the number of female participants – women who’ve applied to and have been accepted – hovers around 25% of the group. When the question has easily evident social-science impact like the future of the digital economy, the number is higher. But in a typical Sandpit, the ratio of men to women is 3:1. It’s even been as low as 4:1.

That means that we miss out on an important aspect of thinking and creative problem solving. According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutger’s University, women’s thinking is different than men’s. Women think contextually and holistically and display more mental flexibility. They take in more data and synthesize it adeptly, connecting the details faster, using imaginative judgment. She refers to the interrelated way that women think as web thinking.

Men, Fisher says, tend to focus on one thing at a time very intensely, and have a strong capacity to compartmentalize their attention. They work to eliminate what appears to be extraneous pieces of data, seeking the straightforward path to the goal, with as little ambiguity as possible. Fisher describes this style of thinking as step thinking.

It’s not that Fisher doesn’t value the masculine way of thinking and working, but she points out in her book, The First Sex, that the characteristics of web thinking are essential to innovation. Since women do it naturally, their role in teams and in organizations is becoming more important.

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A research study conducted by MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Union College studied small teams with the objective of understanding the level of collective intelligence in a working group. The study revealed that a group’s intelligence is not simply the sum or an average of the intelligence (cognitive and emotional) of each of its members. Even if the individuals on a team are very smart and talented people, it isn’t enough to guarantee results. There’s an internal dynamic – a collective intelligence – within the team that leads to good performance, and if it’s there, the team can thrive. And not just at one task, at many different kinds of demanding, multi-functional tasks.

The key factor, the study found, is a measure of social sensitivity. In the high performing teams, the members could read facial expressions and infer what people were thinking and feeling in order to react to each other more efficiently and effectively. There was also a quality of equal participation and conversational turn-taking, rather than having one or two people dominating the dialogue of the group. Probably because women tend to exhibit these behaviors more naturally, the study found that the groups with a greater number of women had a higher collective intelligence and performed better.

This is evident in Sandpits and Ideas Labs, too. When there are women in the group, the dynamic is different. There’s more apparent collaboration and a gentler, collective creative process. Bharat Maldé, an organizational psychologist who advises us on workshop participant selection agrees. “A gender-balanced sandpit brings an importantly different dynamic which is denied when the female contingent is a mere handful.”

Men and women are different. The sexes think, speak, and act differently, so it would make sense that creativity is different between genders, as would be the style of team work. In fact, ascribing gender characteristics isn’t entirely fair; some men have more feminine styles and other women may exhibit more masculine traits. A good balance of yin and yang is probably the best recipe for successful innovation and team performance.

Still, we’ve witnessed how when there are women in a group, the men play nice, nicer than they would with their male counterparts. So vive la différence…but maybe invite a few more women.

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Know further: Do women shun science? Except there are women in science, and you can find out about them here, here and here. Read this EU paper about gender challenge in research funding. And visit some of our favorite science blogs written by women: Cocktail Party Physics, FairerScience and Skepchick and IFL Science.