When women are in the minority, can they gain influence?

Can women make their voices heard in men-dominated groups? What about men in women-dominated groups? Are they perceived the same in terms of influence? A recent paper has answers… and they are fascinating!


A team of researchers studied whether women (vs. men) are at a disadvantage in terms of influence when they are working in a male-majority group (vs. female-majority group). To do so, they randomly assigned male and female students to these different kinds of groups, and measured, in a set of tasks (assignments, projects, deliberative tasks, team-building exercises…) the extent to which each group member was:

  • rated as influential (by themselves and by the other group members).
  • actually influential (i.e., whether each group member was able to influence the decision of the group towards their preferred decision).
  • likely to be chosen as the spokesperson to represent the group.

In a follow-up study, they also randomly appointed a man or a woman as “team leader”, and checked if granting formal authority to a man or woman strengthened or mitigated the effects that they previously observed.


In male-majority groups, women were at a clear disadvantage compared with men in comparable situation (in female-majority groups): They were much less likely to be perceived as influential, they were much less likely to be chosen as the spokesperson of the group, and they were less likely to influence the final group decision than men in the minority.

However, once formal authority was granted to a woman, not only the negative effect of group gender composition on women’s influence vanished, but a positive spillover effect was observed for other women in the group: They also became more likely to be perceived as influential.

Other interesting findings

The disadvantage observed for women was specifically related to traits of influence and authority, which are traditionally assumed to be masculine features. On the contrary, when group members were asked to identify the most supportive members of their group, women were perceived as equally supportive, regardless of the composition of the group. These ratings fit the traditional gender stereotypes according to which women are supposed to be caring and supportive.

One of the findings that I found the most interesting is the source of women’s influence deficit. When researchers asked men and women to identify the most influential person in their groups, they found that:

  • Women, regardless of the group composition, were far less likely than men to vote for themselves. However, they were more likely to support other women, but only when working in a female-dominated group.
  • Men were systematically more likely than women to vote for themselves and to vote for other men as most influential.
  • Men were also more likely to receive the support of women than women to receive the support of men.

The team of researchers also investigated two key questions:

  • Can women overcome their influence deficit in male-majority groups by “leaning in” (i.e., becoming more active in group deliberations and speaking up more)? It doesn’t look like it. First, women contributed as much as men in group discussions, even when they were in the minority. Second, there was no relationship between how much women participated and how influential they were perceived: This positive relationship was only observed for men.
  • Can women overcome their influence deficit in male-majority groups by performing better? Again, it doesn’t look like it: There was no relationship between how good women were and how influential they were perceived; this positive relationship was only observed for men.

In other words, there is not much women can do (such as changing their behavior or attitude) to increase their influence: Who holds power is mostly determined by group dynamics.

What can we conclude from this research?

This research suggests that since women are less likely to receive support from other members of the organizations, they are less likely to emerge as leaders within their group, even when their participation and performance would make them well-suited for these roles. The default norm remains male leadership.

How to solve this issue?

Organizations should consider granting formal authority to women in their teams: It might be one easy and potentially powerful solution to change workplace dynamics that appear to work against women.

Finally, the solidarity that exists among men is worth noticing: Although we’ve known for a while that social relationships are characterized by homophily (people favor interactions with others who look like them), this paper and others suggest that homophily might be stronger among men than among women. Organizations might therefore try to limit the influence of the “Old Boys’ Club,” and to favor sorority in the workplace in order to level the playing field.


Karpowitz C, O’Connell SD, Preece J, Stoddard O. 2024. Strength in Numbers? Gender Composition, Leadership, and Women’s Influence in Teams. Journal of Political Economy.

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Zoé Ziani
Zoé Ziani

PhD in Organizational Behavior