Teaching girls to speak up early could help them change the world

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Recent research by professors at Brigham Young University and Princeton confirms the point. In a study published last month in American Political Science Review, they found that women speak up less often than men. The exception is when a decision needs to be unanimous. In that case, they apparently feel their voice and vote is important and they contribute both.

"In school boards, governing boards of organizations and firms and legislative committees, women are often a minority of members and the group uses majority rule to make its decisions," said Tali Mendelberg, an associate professor of political science at Princeton. "These settings will produce a dramatic inequality in women's floor time and in many other ways. Women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their 'voice is heard'."

That changes outcomes. When women do speak up, the study showed, they change the results. "When women participated more, they brought unique and helpful perspectives to the issue under discussion," said Chris Karpowitz, assistant political science professor at Brigham Young University and associate director of its Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "We're not just losing the voice of someone who would say the same things as everybody else in the conversation."

He said that issues of special importance to women don't get brought up when women don't participate — and they're not small, unimportant issues. "We are talking about equality and how to distribute resources within the group and in society as a whole. When women talked more, they also talked differently — concerns for children, for the poor, the needy, those who might really be struggling. We are not just missing something others in the group might say or were saying already, but we lose a perspective that contributes to discussion and to group outcome."

Some advice

One of the most important things parents can do to raise strong girls who express themselves is to be sure that mothers model that behavior, without speaking all the time for the girl, which will have the opposite effect. A girl who sees a mother who speaks for herself and voices her opinion will do the same, while a girl whose mother always defers to others, especially the girl's father, will tend to do the same thing, clear into adulthood.

While women in a group who perceive themselves as a minority tend to clam up, men in the minority don't, the researchers noted.

A study last year by Northwestern University said that women were associated with so-called "communal" qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, while men are associated with "agentic" qualities, like being assertive or competitive. But the latter qualities were believed essential to becoming successful. Wrote Jeanette Mulvey of Business News Daily of the research, "Because men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, they have better access to leadership roles and face fewer challenges in becoming successful in them."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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