Working for Justice

Are Women Outpacing Men in the Workplace Because They’re Mind Readers?

As detailed last week in a New York Times article, a team of researchers from M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, and Union College has published two studies demonstrating that there is a strong correlation between the number of women in a working group and the ability of that group to accomplish real-world tasks.  The first of the studies, which was published in 2010 in Science, grouped nearly 700 volunteers into working groups of two to five team members, which were then asked to solve a variety of problems designed to mimic real-world situations.  In analyzing the study’s data, the researchers concluded that the highest performing groups shared three characteristics.  First, their members equally contributed to group conversations.  Second, their members scored well on an emotional identification test that evaluated how well the individuals could interpret emotions based only on an individual’s eyes.  Third, the teams where women outnumbered men consistently outperformed the teams where men outnumbered women.  In announcing these results, the researchers noted that women tend to outperform men in the emotional identification test.

The researchers followed this 2010 study with a study published this month in PLoS One wherein they mimicked the first study, but divided the teams into groups that would interact with each other on a face-to-face basis while the other half would only collaborate online with no ability to see each other’s faces.  Much to the surprise of the researchers, the ability to accurately gauge a group member’s emotions continued to be a characteristic of successful working groups, even in the groups where the members were unable to see each other.  The researchers suggest that this indicates successful groups are populated by members who have the ability and willingness to “consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe,” not simply the ability to see the emotion in another’s eyes.

To some extent, the researchers’ findings are consistent with my personal experience.  As an attorney, I have had the opportunity to be in a number of different working groups early in my career.  Before coming to the social justice firm where I currently work, I worked for a federal judge and in the counsel’s office of three different federal agencies.  The most effective working groups I’ve been a part of were those where every member of the team voluntarily contributed.  Frequently, these groups were comprised of members who demonstrated the sort of empathy the researchers found to be a common ingredient in successful groups.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to see that researchers found that gender bears a correlation to this trait. The majority of my colleagues have been women, and my supervisors have been fairly evenly distributed between the genders.  I’ve had female colleagues who were acutely perceptive of the millions of unspoken communications whirling around the workplace, and others who were completely oblivious.  The same is true of my male colleagues.  Nonetheless, even if the researchers are correct in their observation that women tend to be more perceptive of the subtext around them, I, for one, think that being cognizant of your colleagues’ unspoken communications and emotions probably has less to do with some innate, potentially gender-based characteristic, and more to do with an individual making a conscious decision to be empathetic toward their colleagues.

If this is true, and we have it within our ability to adapt the perceptive traits the researchers found to be characteristic of the most successful groups, it’s a worthwhile goal for workers of both genders. Although it takes effort, deliberately being conscious of your co-workers’ unspoken messages and emotions facilitate the communications that are explicit, and, more importantly, demonstrates to your colleagues that you consider them to be worthwhile.  Such recognition solidifies the team mentality that is crucial to a successful, modern workplace.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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