Gender Inequality in Deliberation: Unpacking the Black Box of Interaction

Women excel under majority rule when they are the majority; when the minority of a deliberative body, women are more advantaged under unanimous rule.


In order to engage in politics at any level, women must participate in group deliberations. In most political discussions, women are the minority and as a result, the group’s behavior tends to conform to a gendered pattern of differential power. In such settings, men tend to assert themselves while women do not.  To overcome this disadvantage, over 100 countries have encouraged or mandated gender quotas, under the assumption that women’s increased numbers increase their efficacy in decision-making and persuasion. Using experimental discussion groups tasked with making a decision about resource allocation and using speaker interruptions as a proxy for status, this study examines how the gender make-up of deliberating bodies affects how participants enhance or undermine women’s status in the deliberations.


In group discussions, women are undermined less often and encouraged more often under two possible conditions: 1) when women make up a majority in a group that is making decisions using majority rule, or 2) when women make up any proportion of a group that is making decisions using unanimous rule – i.e. where all members must agree in order to move forward with a decision.  

  • When women’s status is lowest – under majority rule with few women participants – over 2/3 of the interruptions women receive from men are negative. Where women’s status is highest – as majority participants under majority rule – over 80% of interruptions that women experience from men are positive. Men’s experiences do not change as a result when placed in either of the aforementioned scenarios. 
  • Women receive only 40% as many positive affirmations as men in groups where there is a minority of women under a majority rule decision-making condition.
  • Lone women under majority rule give the most positive reinforcements out of any gender group under any condition; however, they receive the lowest rate of affirmation in return. These women receive only 25% of the affirmations that lone women receive with unanimous rule, and only half of the affirmations that lone men receive under majority rule.

In sum, women experience much greater inequality, relative to men, when their status is lowest – as a minority under majority rule.


This study conducted an experiment in two American cities to link individual-level speech with pre- and post-discussion attitudes. Five-member discussion groups composed of 0 to 5 women were randomly assigned to act with unanimous or majority rule. 470 individuals participated in 94 groups. Participants were told they would be performing tasks to earn money, and the amount they would receive would be based on their group’s collective decision about redistribution. They were instructed to decide collectively on a principle of redistribution and to set a poverty line in dollars. After the discussion, the participants individually answered questions about how their group functioned and their attitudes towards the discussion.  Researchers analyzed the amount and type of interruptions that occurred, and noted the gender of the person interrupting and the gender of the speaker being interrupted.

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