Do Women Make Groups Smarter?

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A few weeks ago, I got a chance to catch up with my friend, Stephanie McAuliffe, who heads up the Organizational Effectiveness program at the Packard Foundation. We were discussing the challenges of collaboration in philanthropy, and she told me an anecdote about some particularly hard-headed individuals who didn’t want to listen to anybody. Stephanie happened to note that those individuals were men.

“I’m not trying to make a generalization,” she laughed.

“Not to worry,” I assured her. “And anyway, it may be fair to make that generalization. Are you familiar with Tom Malone’s research?”

Tom Malone is the director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. A few months ago, he published research with Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Woolley suggesting that groups with more women exhibited greater collective intelligence. It’s not that women have higher IQs than men. (Individual IQ had little correlation with collective intelligence.) It’s that women tend to exhibit more social sensitivity than men, and social sensitivity is a much stronger contributing factor to group intelligence.

Upon hearing about this research, Stephanie asked me what it might suggest about Wikipedia. Wikipedia, after all, is often touted as a classic example of collective intelligence, and yet, over 80 percent of its contributors are men. Is Wikipedia the counterpoint to Woolley and Malone?

I don’t think so. There are lots of factors that contribute to collective intelligence. What’s remarkable about Wikipedia is the medium (an open, online space where people from all over the world gather, the majority of whom have never met face-to-face) and its scale. It’s a great example of collective intelligence, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do even better.

This was largely the premise of the open strategic planning process I led for the Wikimedia community from 2009-2010. Sure, Wikipedia is amazing, but how can it do even better? Not surprisingly, one of the goals that the community established was to increase the diversity of its participants, especially women.

Collective intelligence is not a binary thing. Neither is collaboration. People often say, “We’re not collaborating,” when what they actually mean is, “We’re not collaborating well.” This is a critical distinction. Everybody already knows how to collaborate. The question is how to do it better. Even those who are already doing it well can always improve.

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  • Ken Pier

    Has is occurred to you that computer-mediated collaboration (Wikipedia) eliminates some of the factors such as competition for dominance or racial/ethnic/gender biases that impede collaboration? “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

    • Eugene Eric Kim

      Hi Ken! That’s an interesting point, and in some cases, it may lead to the elimination of certain biases (the same way that blind auditions compensate for gender bias in orchestras). However, the issue here is around the levels of social sensitivity in a group. A group with a high percentage of men is more likely to exhibit lower social sensitivity than a mixed gender group. In a low-sensitivity group, not knowing the demographics of the group may actually exacerbate the problem rather than help it.

      When I was leading the Wikimedia strategy process, we held weekly office hours on IRC. I tried to keep it loose and congenial, which generally worked out great. However, a few times, some folks started engaging in locker room humor, and I had to put a stop to it. The problem was that people would just assume it was a bunch of guys in the room and acted accordingly. That wasn’t the case, and said humor was inadvertently marginalizing the women in the room.

      I heard lots of similar stories around older participants, some of whom got very offended by how they were treated by the often much-younger Wikimedians. I’ve often wondered how a simple profile picture might change people’s behavior. Would people be as inclined to be short or rude to a participant who looked like their grandparents?

      • Ken Pier

        Politeness might result, along with discounting of a more senior person’s contribution – recall the old saw of how your parents got smarter as you grew older. Is there a way to introduce social sensitivity issues/norms/practices explicitly into a group? Most people taking a new job understand that acquiring the corporate culture is important regardless of how much expertise is brought to the job. How can social sensitivity become part of a collaboration culture?

        • Eugene Eric Kim

          Damn good question, and especially hard for open communities versus organizations.

          There’s a lot that open communities can learn from (good) organizations in terms of intentionally adopting practices that reinforce positive cultural norms. Some, such as the Apache Software Foundation or other open source communities, do this well by documenting community guidelines, pointing new contributors to these guidelines and welcoming them when they join, even assigning mentors.

          The main thing to remember is that culture is important, and that you can build culture by being intentional about it, regardless of whether you’re an organization or a grassroot community.