If there is one thing that I think would make a significant positive difference in the trajectory of life on this planet, it is the elevation of marginalized voices including racial minorities, the economically disenfranchised, and women.
It is important that these voices are heard not only for the principle of equal voice and the respect it communicates, but also because these voices offer much needed perspectives and priorities capable of shifting policies and resource allocation for the betterment of humankind.
Women, for example, tend to identify different things as problems and are more likely to think about the needs of families, children, and how we can care for those who have least in our society. This critical perspective is often lost because women’s voices are not heard.
A recent book titled The Silent Sex by Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg shares the results of a study looking at how different group compositions and decision-making protocols impacted how often women’s voices are heard. For the study, the researchers established groups of five people with varying compositions of men and women. The groups were asked to split their collective earnings and to determine how economic redistribution should work in society at large.
Half of the groups were told to decide by majority rule (representing the most common protocol decision-making bodies use). In these groups, the researchers observed the behaviors that are all too familiar to women who have been part of group conversations in the workplace and elsewhere. There was dramatically unequal talking time between men and women. It took not just a female majority, but a supermajority (meaning four out of five) for women to have proportionate talking time to men. Outnumbered women in the study spoke at best, three-quarters of the amount of time a man spoke and on average, women spoke two-thirds as much as a man.
The women in these groups were also routinely interrupted, and most of these interruptions were negative, meaning the interjections were discouraging, things like “I don’t think so” or “That’s not right.” In the groups that had one woman alone with four men, 70 percent of the interruptions she received were negative. When there were four women in the room and only one man, men become less aggressive and only 20 percent of the interruptions were negative.
Shifting from Majority Rule to Unanimity Rule
What is interesting about this study is what happened to the other half of the groups. These groups were told to make their decision by unanimity rule.
The results were astounding.
- Female talking time increased for women in the minority. A lone woman participated nearly as much as a man.
- Unanimity rule significantly increased positive interruptions—interjections that affirm and validate, like “Yeah” and “I agree.” Such positive interruptions tripled for women in the minority.
- The influence gap narrowed for a lone woman. She had almost as much of a shot as a man at being voted the most influential member by her group.
As Karpowitz explains, “Unanimity rule sends the message that everybody’s voice matters.” This empowers women’s voices and allows us all to benefit from the perspectives, experiences, and knowledge they bring to the group.
This finding is particularly interesting from the perspective of restorative practices. In restorative practices, all agreement outcomes are decided unanimously. The group discusses the needs of the individuals involved, what would repair the harm caused, and employs creativity in addressing those needs, until they reach a specific list of actions that all participants agree would work to make things right. In restorative processes, we see how this reliance on unanimity rule ensures equal voice and respectful communication.
The demonstrated successes of the unanimity rule approach in restorative practices and the specific structures that make this protocol successful (such as the circle) may have applicability in other areas of social life. What would a restorative approach to politics look like? Could more emphasis on unanimity rule mean less hostile partisan divides, more compromise, more respect, more compassionate policies, and more women in leadership?