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Enacting a ‘token’ woman’s ideas helps male teams solve complex problems more effectively

Crystal Farh

Women who break into traditional male bastions—engineering teams, construction crews, tech startups, trading rooms, corporate boards, combat units—sometimes get tagged with the pejorative “token,” suggesting that their inclusion had more to do with appearances than aptitude.

But what happens when a woman’s ideas are actually heard and enacted by her all-male teammates?

Complex tasks get performed more effectively, according to a new study co-authored by Crystal Farh, an associate professor of management and Michael G. Foster Endowed Fellow at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Observations of all-male military tactical teams reveal that adding a woman consistently leads to more expedient solutions of complex problems requiring collective creative thinking—if the team acts on her ideas.

“Merely having a female on a team does not distinguish her team’s performance from that of all-male teams,” Farh says. “Rather, this woman has to speak up and, more importantly, her suggestions have to be heard and enacted.”

This expression of a minority voice, she adds, is more likely to be achieved when team leaders believe that women are as capable of contributing as their male counterparts.

Token ­­­­______

Organizations across industries are paying increasing attention to diversity and inclusion in their workforces. This trend is not only in service to the virtue of demographic equity. It’s also an attempt to unlock some measurable benefits: a growing body of research shows that diversity can improve performance and boost the bottom line.

But diversity, by itself, is not a panacea.

“Getting diversity into teams doesn’t make things happen magically,” says Farh, an expert in employee voice. “A lot of things have to fall into place to actually capitalize on diversity. And there are many threats, such as a negative stereotype or evaluation, which can cause individuals who are different from their teammates to either not speak up or not be heard if they do.”

This results in a vicious cycle and the pointless exercise of tokenism: representation without participation (or, put another way, diversity without inclusion).

Establishing attitude

Farh wanted to learn what happens when a vastly underrepresented minority team member does speak up and her ideas are enacted. To find out, she collaborated with Jo Oh of the University of Connecticut, John Hollenbeck of Michigan State University, Andrew Yu of the University of Melbourne, Stephanie Lee of Baylor University and Danielle King of Rice University.

The researchers set their study in an archetypal male milieu: U.S. Marine Corps combat units.

They randomly divided active duty male and female Marines into small tactical teams. Some were composed entirely of males. Others included a lone female.

Step one was a survey benchmarking team leaders’ attitudes toward women in the military on three dimensions: leadership capability, physical strength, and combat readiness.

“If these prototypical characteristics that are considered essential in the Marine Corps can be decoupled from gender, then we see a greater probability of token women having a viable voice,” Farh says.

Complex vs. simple

This was demonstrated in the next phase of the study, in which each team was asked to perform a series of collaborative tasks.

Two of the tasks involved straightforward physical objectives, such as a “casualty rescue” simulation to transport a 90-pound dummy through a hole in a wall and across a “booby-trapped” room, avoiding clear obstacles. The other tasks were more complex, such as a “medicine delivery” exercise to transport a five-pound container from one side of a room to another without the container or any of the team touching the floor in between, with a selection of resource aides (rope, hooks, planks) that could prove either useful or useless.

The first notable observation concerned the frequency of female voice. In teams with leaders who espoused positive attitudes toward women serving in combat roles, the lone woman spoke up as much or more than a randomly chosen member of a different all-male team. And her ideas were acted upon more often.

The result? In the complex tasks, the teams that tried out a woman’s suggestions were able to devise an effective strategy and complete the objective more quickly than those missing or ignoring outside perspective.

“In the complex tasks,” Farh says, “teams that didn’t have a ‘token’ voice among their numbers tended to just keep trying the same solution over and over, ending in frustration and often anger.”

In the straightforward tasks, however, the opposite occurred. Testing the woman’s ideas actually slowed progress.

Sparking creativity

Farh explains that the introduction of novel ideas by a minority member of a team—or anyone else—unnecessarily complicates the process of performing a simple task.

But in tackling complex tasks, fresh perspectives are enormously valuable. According to the study, this is not because those fresh perspectives necessarily deliver the perfect solution to the problem at hand. Rather, the process of enacting a fresh perspective sparks a new collective creativity. It delivers a trove of novel insights and opens minds to innovative ways of solving a problem.

The key is action.

“Research on creative teams tells us that when you prototype an idea—actually act on it—it gives everyone a common platform to solve in a new way,” Farh says. “Enactment opens the team to all new possibilities. And that works really well for tasks that require it.”

Speak, listen, act

Farh says that the study offers insights for every player in a common scenario.

  • Women in majority male teams (or any underrepresented minority) must speak up to make a positive contribution. But choose your moments carefully. A diverse perspective is incredibly valuable in complex tasks, but you might keep that perspective to yourself when it comes to performing straightforward jobs.
  • Majority team members should be willing to listen and act on the ideas of a teammate who looks and thinks differently from them.
  • Team leaders should open their minds to the character and contributions of members who differ from the majority. And amplify those diverse voices. “A team leader, or even a well-respected team member, can lend legitimacy to a minority individual’s voice,” Farh says. “Having positive attitudes about minority team members and believing they are just as capable translates into idea enactment.”
  • Organizations that have tended toward homogeneous workforces would benefit by promoting the capabilities of diverse newcomers, and challenging the stereotypes of employees and, especially, leaders that would create barriers to enacting their new members’ suggestions.

“Organizations should know that if we try out the ideas of this new person,” Farh says, “it will—directly or indirectly—help us get to expedient solutions collectively.”

Token Female Voice Enactment in Traditionally Male-Dominated Teams: Facilitating Conditions and Consequences for Performance” is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.

Crystal Farh received the 2019 PACCAR Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Foster School’s highest teaching honor.