The Value of the So-Called ‘Token’ Woman

Marine recruits stand in formation following hand-to-hand combat training during boot camp at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Marine recruits stand in formation following hand-to-hand combat training during boot camp at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Women who break into traditional male bastions—engineering teams, construction crews, tech startups, trading rooms, corporate boards, combat units—sometimes get tagged with the pejorative “token,” suggesting that their inclusion had more to do with appearances than aptitude.

But what happens when a woman’s ideas are actually heard and enacted by her male teammates?

Complex tasks are performed more effectively, according to a new study in the Academy of Management Journal by the University of Connecticut, University of Washington, Michigan State University, University of Melbourne, Baylor University and Rice University.

“In certain situations, having a token female on the team can really make a difference,” says Kyoungjo (Jo) Oh, study author and assistant professor of management at UConn. “But, merely putting a female member on a team isn’t enough. Other factors such as leadership also play an important role and are essential.”

Observations of all-male military tactical teams reveal that adding a woman — and acting on her ideas —consistently leads to more expedient solutions of complex problems requiring collective creative thinking.

The researchers set their study in U.S. Marine Corps combat units. They randomly divided active duty male and female Marines into small tactical teams. Some were composed entirely of males. Others included a lone female.

Step one was a survey benchmarking team leaders’ attitudes toward women in the military on three dimensions: leadership capability, physical strength, and combat readiness. This was demonstrated in the next phase of the study, in which each team was asked to perform a series of collaborative tasks.

Two of the tasks involved straightforward physical objectives, such as a “casualty rescue” simulation to transport a 90-pound dummy through a hole in a wall and across a “booby-trapped” room, avoiding clear obstacles. The other tasks were more complex, such as a “medicine delivery” exercise to transport a five-pound container from one side of a room to another without the container or any of the team touching the floor in between, with a selection of resource aides (rope, hooks, planks) that could prove either useful or useless.

The first notable observation concerned the frequency of female voice. In teams with leaders who espoused positive attitudes toward women serving in combat roles, the lone woman spoke up as much or more than a randomly chosen member of a different all-male team. And her ideas were acted upon more often.

The result? In the complex tasks, the teams that tried out a woman’s suggestions were able to devise an effective strategy and complete the objective more quickly than those missing or ignoring outside perspective.

“Getting diversity into teams doesn’t make things happen magically,” says author Crystal Farh, associate professor of management and Michael G. Foster Endowed Fellow at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. “A lot of things have to fall into place to actually capitalize on diversity. And there are many threats, such as a negative stereotype or evaluation, which can cause individuals who are different from their teammates to either not speak up or not be heard if they do.”

Oh and Farh collaborated with John Hollenbeck, Eli Broad Professor of Management at Michigan State University; Andrew Yu, University of Melbourne; Stephanie Lee, Baylor University; and Danielle King,Rice University.

“In the complex tasks,” Farh says, “teams that didn’t have a ‘token’ voice among their numbers tended to just keep trying the same solution over and over, ending in frustration and often anger.”

In the straightforward tasks, however, the opposite occurred. Testing the woman’s ideas actually slowed progress.

Farh explains that the introduction of novel ideas by a minority member of a team—or anyone else—unnecessarily complicates the process of performing a simple task.

But in tackling complex tasks, fresh perspectives are enormously valuable. According to the study, this is not because those fresh perspectives necessarily deliver the perfect solution to the problem at hand. Rather, the process of enacting a fresh perspective sparks a new collective creativity. It delivers a trove of novel insights and opens minds to innovative ways of solving a problem.

The key is action. The study offers insights for every player in a common scenario, say the researchers.

  • Women in majority male teams (or any underrepresented minority) must speak up to make a positive contribution. But choose your moments carefully. A diverse perspective is incredibly valuable in complex tasks, but you might keep that perspective to yourself when it comes to performing straightforward jobs.
  • Majority team members should be willing to listen and act on the ideas of a teammate who looks and thinks differently from them.
  • Team leaders should open their minds to the character and contributions of members who differ from the majority. And amplify those diverse voices. “A team leader, or even a well-respected team member, can lend legitimacy to a minority individual’s voice,” Farh says. “Having positive attitudes about minority team members and believing they are just as capable translates into idea enactment.”
  • Organizations that have tended toward homogeneous workforces would benefit by promoting the capabilities of diverse newcomers, and challenging the stereotypes of employees and, especially, leaders that would create barriers to enacting their new members’ suggestions.