Minority Opinion

Enacting a ‘token’ woman’s ideas helps male teams solve complex problems more effectively

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 all-male teammates?

Complex tasks get performed more effectively, according to a study co-authored by Crystal Farh, an associate professor of management and Michael G. Foster Endowed Fellow.

Farh’s observations of all-male military tactical teams reveal that adding a woman consistently leads to more expedient solutions of complex problems requiring collective creative thinking—if the team acts on her ideas.

“Merely having a female on a team does not distinguish her team’s performance from that of all-male teams,” Farh says. “Rather, this woman has to speak up and, more importantly, her suggestions have to be heard and enacted.”

This is more likely to happen when team leaders believe that women are as capable of contributing as their male counterparts.

Farh notes, however, that enacting a newcomer’s ideas actually slows progress on straightforward team tasks.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.