A new study by a team of researchers (three male, two female) indicates a statistical correlation between the collective intelligence of a team and the proportion of women. They attribute this correlation to a factor they call "social sensitivity", which they describe in terms of the ability of group members to perceive each other's emotions. They acknowledge that this is not an exclusively female ability, but suggest that females tend to possess this ability to a greater extent than males.
Social sensitivity is one element of emotional intelligence. It would be interesting to know how other elements of emotional intelligence (e.g. confidence, determination, self-awareness, self-control) affected the performance of these groups on these tasks. See my earlier post on Emotional Intelligence.
By the way, we probably shouldn't think of "social sensitivity" as something that belongs to an individual woman in isolation - obviously it would be pretty meaningless and impossible to observe outside some social context - we could instead think of it as a group phenomenon that happens to emerges more readily in the presence of many women.
Another relevant factor appears to be the conversational dynamic of the group - taking equal turns rather than allowing one person to dominate.
I suspect that the relationship between conversational dynamic and gender balance is a complex one - men may respond in various ways to the presence of women and vice versa - and of course this relationship depends on cultural context. And by culture I don't just mean macroculture (Americans versus Japanese, Generation X versus Generation Y) but also microculture (the style and identity of this particular organization). This relationship is not elaborated in the extracts I have seen.
What doesn't appear to be a relevant factor, at least for the set of group tasks included in the experiment, is the average or maximum intelligence of the group members.
This confirms something I have long asserted, that collective intelligence is not determined by individual intelligence, but emerges from the interactions of the group or organization.
While these findings are undoubtedly interesting, it is important to qualify them with the observation that these were fairly short-term tasks from groups that were apparently put together for the purposes of the experiment. So it would be useful to have some research that looked at the performance of mixed gender groups over longer periods. If women are better at reading emotions quickly, is this advantage eroded over time as team members become more familiar with one another, or does this represent a persistent source of advantage?
If we accept the idea that the presence of females in the boardroom would make the board of directors more intelligent, this raises some further interesting questions. Instead of talking abstractly about glass ceilings, we need to understand specifically what power structures allow male-dominated organizations to survive against the potentially superior intelligence of female-dominated organizations. Alternatively, we might have to explore the idea that the intelligence at board level is a lot less relevant to corporate success than the pay and self-importance of senior management might suggest.
Another way of interpreting the results is to say that gender represents an important mode of diversity. In this particular experiment, gender may have been the most significant mode of diversity, especially if all the participants were drawn from a relatively homogeneous population, and were of similar age and educational background. In an experiment with a more heterogeneous population, other kinds of diversity might turn out to be more significant, which would lead to the explanation that it is diversity in general rather than gender in particular that produces these outcomes. However, this research happens to provide data about gender, and I have not seen any data about the comparative value of different kinds of diversity.
For example, Hillary Clinton and David Miliband have much in common, and would be grouped together in many classification schemes.
Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi, Thomas W. Malone Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1193147
Collective Intelligence: Number of Women in Group Linked to Effectiveness in Solving Difficult Problems ScienceDaily (Sep. 30, 2010)
Study finds small groups demonstrate distinctive 'collective intelligence' when facing difficult tasks PhysOrg (Sep. 30, 2010)
Relationships built on self-interest (January 2009)
What is the Purpose of Diversity? (January 2010)
Organizational Intelligence and Gender (October 2010)
Delusion and Diversity (October 2010)
More on the Purpose of Diversity (December 2014)