More Women, Smarter Teams

The title says it all: to help teams perform better, add more women.  An intriguing research project highlighted in the June 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon and Thomas Malone of MIT suggests what makes teams smarter: having more women on them.  The study also points out some things which you might intuitively think would help, but don’t.

In contrast to some earlier studies which used surveys to get feedback from team members, this research examined teams’ performance on solving puzzles and completing team tasks in the lab.  The researchers studied almost 200 teams, with randomly assigned members.  Each team was given tasks to complete, including puzzles, brainstorming, decision-making and solving complex problems.  Woolley and Malone then compared the results of the task-completion to other factors like individual intelligence and group cohesion.

Individual Intelligence Didn’t Matter

It turned out that the sum of the parts did not equal the whole; teams with members who collectively scored higher on standard IQ tests were not the “smartest” teams.  Group cohesion, group satisfaction and other factors we might think would contribute to smarter teams didn’t correlate with performance either.

More Women = Smarter Teams

The one factor which stood out in the research was that the higher the percentage of women in the team, the better the results in team IQs.  The researchers suggest that their findings go beyond “diversity in teams is good;” the data indicates that except at the very extremes, where performance flattens out, the more women on the team the better for the team IQ.

The researchers speculate that this may be due to generally higher social awareness in women, a contributing factor to smarter teams, or to other factors not yet identified.

Five to Fist and the Blogojevich Jury

One fascinating clue to women on teams and how they make decisions is provided by a look inside the Blogojevich jury, made up of eleven women and one man.  Jezebel wrote that instead of taking an immediate up or down vote on various counts, the jury used a teacher’s device of “five to fist” – hold up five fingers if you completely agree, a fist if you completely disagree, and 2, 3 or 4 fingers to indicate that you’re somewhere in between.

In the Chicago Tribune Mary Schmich suggests that:

The jurors reached their decisions with no bullying, no shouting, no pouting. A colleague of mine who has covered a lot of trials said she’s never seen a jury build agreement through so many shades of gray.

My take-away? Make sure your teams have plenty of women, and oh, while you’re at it, try “five to fist” for coming to consensus.

0 replies
  1. Gary S. Hart
    Gary S. Hart says:

    This is a fabulous post. My wife owns a dance school that I work at on a part time basis for nearly 7-years. 99.9% of the time, I am the only male in meetings. It has been an incredible learning experience that continues to teach me new communication skills.

    I like the “five to fist” method and will offer that method at our next meeting.

    One question that came to mind: Will a team of 100% women provide the greatest results or is there a point of diminihing return?

  2. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    A great question – I have yet to read the original research, but the summary suggests that performance flattens out at the extremes – so my guess is that a team of 100% women isn’t the ultimate (besides being a whole lot less fun!)

    I’m also going to also suggest that we start using “five to fist” here within TAA – a straw vote with nuance.

  3. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    Sounds pretty much like the findings of the Henley Management College in the UK about 15 years ago. They did similar tests to see what teams worked best and how those teams were comprised.

    Seemed that many of the worse teams initially looked like all star, dream teams – until they tried to do some work together. The teams of business ‘stars’ (imagine, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump and Warren Buffet in the same team) worked pretty badly, produced mediocre results and produced them late against the deadline. Trouble was, the teams like that comprised guys who were all used to running things – they liked team-work, but only when they were in charge!

    The best teams comprised salespeople – they were optomistic, used to compromising and working with others, were used to working to deadlines – and the intellegence wasn’t a blocking factor; it was addressed by working together and drawing out all the talents within the team.

    Intuitively we would have expacted the team of business’stars’ to win hands down and the sales guys to just have a good time partying (OK – as an ex-sales guy I surprised and would have expected the partying). But it wasn’t so in reality.

    The key had been drawing on all available talents and experience, and harness that against a deadline. The ‘star’ teams fought to the end for control; even though they had an abundence of talents and experience.

    I would guess the added x-factor, of adding more women to the teams, was all about getting wider experiences and calming the atmosphere allowing more collaboration. I’m not at all sure it’s just about the women being women – I think it’s about breadth of experince and more view points.

    Personally I believe we get into a lot of discussions about women being disadvantaged in the workplace, when too often the real, root issue, is about how organisations use their available talent. (In my last job, working in an organisation of 140,000, nobody ever did an audit on what I knew, or my experience – and I didn’t know anyone else who’d been asked either!)

    I’m not at all sure the best talent rises to the top jobs in organisations – and the bigger they are the greater the mis-match. I’d love to be wrong, but there’s a whole industry out there making us laugh about this whole area. If it weren’t true we wouldn’t be laughing so hard. You have to accept it all as ‘Real-Reality’ and work around and/or through it. Perhaps it’s always been like that. However, if you can’t accept it, work for a company with 5 to 10 people where there’s no room for anyone but contributors. (OK – until you have to buy or sell to a big organisation.)

  4. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful response. As one who came of (professional) age during the intensity of what we called the feminist revolution, I would love to think that we’re beyond discussions of women v. men or women being disadvantaged in the workplace — and I know there are people who will and should disagree with that. I do remember that at that time one criticism of women in business is what we were not “team players.”

    I’m afraid I’m missing your point on a whole industry out there making us laugh about this area. Curious to know which industry you mean.

  5. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    Sandy – I meant that there is a whole load of stand-ups making us all laugh about dysfunctional organizations and what happens during a working day in their midst. Conversely, there’s nothing funny about the gender thing – it’s just immature to suggest that women can’t do exactly the same jobs as men. And since we no longer hump coal around by hand, plough the land whilst hanging on to a pair of horses, and police our streets by wrestling criminals to the ground after a chase on foot – physical jobs are getting fewer by the month.

    If we had true meritocracies at work, the best talent would rise irrespective of whether it was displayed by a man or woman. It just makes common sense to have teams with as much diversity as possible. I’m not at all surprised that a team with women in it performs better than a men only team.

    Perhaps there are more problems about women at work in the USA than here in Europe. I haven’t experienced any more when visiting on business – but I’ve never lived in the USA. Certainly in Sweden they seem to have buried the gender issue more than any nation.

    Getting disadvantaged at work takes many forms. When I was young I had quite a marked London accent that would have excluded me from many City office jobs. But that was before deregulation in the City of London Stock Markets, after which, a London accent then became a very desirable facet. How time changes perceptions – and none of it driven by talent. But by that time I’d pretty much eradicated my natural accent. There’s a narrow line between a real blocking factor and an excuse for underperforming

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I certainly agree with what you’ve said about meritocracies and diversity in general. I do think though that in the case of gender, it’s more than just a question of balance without regard to the issue.

    Studies have shown (I know I should cite one here) that women actually demonstrate greater ability to think calmly in the midst of stress like stock trading–they are less likely to double-down, less likely to get ego-involved in the trade.

    And women–even Swedes, I suspect, though I’ll defer to you on that one–tend across the world to be better, on the whole and on the average, at connecting and bonding and making collaborative relationships. It’s evident as early as in toddlers.

    Which, if I understand that research rightly, is what’s going on here. Women tend to be better at working in teams. It is a specific gender-biased skill, just like wrestling criminals to the ground; balance is not the ideal here, female over-weighting is the goal; until and unless men can be taught to emulate women in this regard (which I believe they can).

    Or so it seems to me.

  7. John Gies
    John Gies says:


    I read your post this morning and personally agree with the idea that women are important team members and leaders. I have often said that women often are better at selling because they are better at asking good questions.

    Tonight in scrolling through my feed, I cam across this post that points out that having a woman for a boss could in fact have negative impact on mens pay and prestige in future employment. What was shocking to me in the research was that women punished men for having a female boss in the same proportion as men.

    Seems like there is still more work to be done.

    Keep up the good work,


  8. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    John – I still think a lot of these observations in your link seem to be about how big organizations promote and manage. If we were managed by merit – i.e. the best person for the job gets it – a huge amount of these anecdotes would vanish into history. I recently did some business work for someone who said my car was inappropriate – they wanted me to arrive in a BMW. Gimmee a break! 40 years ago it was my slight London accent – 30 years ago it was my education – 20 years ago it was my lack of designer Casual Friday clothes, 10 years ago we all had to sit on bean bags and wear black shirts to be hip in the Internet market, and now it’s my car. You know, there’s always a non-business reason lurking to help those who lack business competence, so they can wrong foot the rest of us.

    My best memory was working for Wang in their last days before they went bust. It was brilliant – everybody was super talented and no passengers. The best environment for talent I’d ever worked in; and when it all went belly up, we all got even better jobs within weeks. When you work for a meritocracy like that, and no fat, it really rocks! There was certainly no sexism at Wang at all in the UK in the last year of full business (1992?).

  9. Mercedes Meyer
    Mercedes Meyer says:

    This is the first positive, constructive means of changing the diversity dynamic – it is a “Show Me The Money” reason to make teams, offices, companies more diverse. Entities should not feel as though they have to increase diversity simply because “their consultant told them to do it”, “their client said if you don’t – we will fire you,” or “everyone else is doing it” or “you gotta make a quota to make a specific list”. You do it for those reasons, they are nonconstructive reasons that may or may not succeed because the basis for doing it can lack fundamental belief and support in the institution.

    However, by having such statistical evidence that you achieve better problem solving with a gender diverse team – that can translate into having better services or better product in a company. That is a SHOW ME THE MONEY / FOLLOW THE MONEY kind of reason. That kind of result is an unemotional, unbiased and simply a statistical scientific answer. It simply is. It is not opinion or argument. That is what makes it an economic driver for diversity and why it should be studied with greater interest.

    Money Talks (and of course BS walks) and in a capitalistic society, if you want to be heard like in the old EF Hutton ads, you show people a financial reason that will benefit them. This is a financial reason. But, it also gets rid of the quota concept – if you want an effective team – they must be diverse, but they have to operate like a team in order to get there. Tokenism may be an endangered species with statistics like these. It also supports the premise of team building exercises.

    Ultimately, if authors look at it, while they may have a lower IQ team, by adding diversity, they should added the additional hypotheses of whether there is an increase in EQ of the team? Would the addition racial diversity also increase the EQ of the team? Then, its time to bring in the psychologists and linguists to study the language and communication patterning between the teams to answer “why?”

    A really inspiring blog!

  10. laura liswood
    laura liswood says:

    Good going to bring this up. There is often a clamor for the ‘business case’ for diversity. Of course, I have never seen the business case made for lack of diversity. Catalyst has also pointed out that putting at least three women on boards of directors or in management makes a difference. In my book, The Loudest Duck (Wiley & Sons), I talk about how non dominant groups will know a lot more about dominant groups than the reverse. It is not surprising to me that women (and other non dominant groups) are more aware of the signals and emotional content of the dynamic. They have to be for survival and success. It turns out that this honed emotional intelligence ends up being reflected in more ideas being generated and awareness of groups interactions–they are all useful tools.
    Diversity is about ‘cognitive diversity’ the differing ways people think about things.
    Organizations like to think that they are meritocracies and only the best get to the top, often ignoring the fact that there are subtle inequities occuring that advantage some and disadvantage others. I’ve never heard anyone who got to the top of an organization say, “the reason I got to the top was that I was subtly advantaged” and yet that is exactly what has happened.

  11. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    I agree Laura. That all makes a lot of sense. Especially the end para. (I’ve also never heard anyone say I got to the top on the coat-tails of some of my buddies and ended up running things, or I belong to the same club as the guys who were hireing the CEO, or play golf with the Chairman who was looking for a new CEO.)

    PLPLT (people like people like themselves) – if the guys hiring are all men it’s hardly surprising you get more of the same. But you have to deal with ‘Real-reality’, the way things really are, and just get on with it with a plan that recogises those realities. However unjust.

  12. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    I love your comment about “the business case for non-diversity” … I’ve yet to see the business case for distrust, either! And in The Loudest Duck you make a great case for cognitive diversity. Thanks for sharing your insights.


    I totally agree with recognizing and dealing with the real-reality, and whatever injustice it entails. And I believe that in a fast-changing and flattened world, cognitive diversity as it supports collaboration and innovation becomes more and more critical. It’s always refreshing to see some of the science and thought-leadership behind that.

  13. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, and please accept my apologies for my delay in replying. I really love your ideas that evidence like this will help us move beyond quotas, both in our thinking and our actions, and move toward effectiveness.

    What makes a team more effective? What makes a company or organization more innovative? How do we become less rules-bound (because rules can be gamed,skirted and broken) and more moral, more willing to do what’s right?

    Thanks again.Let’s keep this conversation going in our world!

  14. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Sandy, I just read about reliminary highlights of a study by the Level Playing Field Institute focusing on hidden bias in in the technology industry, and thought of you:

    “One of the findings is that while 60% of men in start-ups believe that diverse teams are better at innovation and problem-solving, only 41% would be in favor of a company-wide hiring practice to increase diversity.”

    (via Rebuttal: Make Room In the Bubble For Everyone by Freada Kapor Klein, guest blogging at Tech Crunch.)

    In short, empirical evidence about diversity (and not just gender diversity) isn’t enough to overcome individual and organizational bias.

  15. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Forgive my very tardy reply.  You know what an (un) tech I can be sometimes, and I missed your comments.  Thanks for both the research cite and Make Room in the Bubble.  

    And love it that three young women won 1, 2 and 3rd in the Google Intl Science Fair -it’s amazing to me that any teenager can do such advanced research!

  16. Rick Lepsinger
    Rick Lepsinger says:

    Our research on the use of influence also sheds some light on why teams with more women perform better.  Although we found may similarities in the tactics and behaviors men and women use to gain support and commitment for their ideas and intitatives, there were two significant differences.  Women tend to use Inspirational Appeals (appealing to values and beliefs and leveraging emotion) and Consultation (asking for people’s input and involing them in shaping the idea). 

    We believe these behaviors enhance team member engagement and set a more collaborative tone which in turn impacts decision quality and acceptance.   


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