He who speaks loudest… or she?

By 28th October 2015 Read Seen Heard No Comments

According to a recent post from Role Reboot, an online magazine and ‘movement’, “men speak 70% of the time in mixed gender groups, with degrading effects on group decision-making. Women are rarely viewed as among the most powerful, influential, or relevant speakers. Their introduction of topics, or attempts to shift conversation, are frequently ignored. And their speech is routinely interrupted”. 

We thought this was interesting – yes, possibly a little bit indulgent in the flavour of a feminist rant (which we’re all in danger of doing, as mostly women ourselves, although we do try not to let things get too biased!), and it did resonate when thinking about meetings, but it also made us stop and think about how mixed gender groups work in the research context, enough to chat to some colleagues about it as well.


In Western countries like the UK, Northern Europe and the USA, we have ,already for a long time, often actively opt to have mixed-gender groups, particularly for younger age groups where we find that women hold their own really well, and guys are less macho and contribute more usefully in a mixed session. This can take some persuading with more ‘traditional clients’ but it really can work so much better – in fact, we would rather mix sexes within many groups than mix a wider range of age within same-sex groups.

Fellow researcher Caroline Noon agreed that age certainly seems to play a role“Men seem to become more didactic with age, whilst younger men seem more in tune with sharing the voice with women.” We know someone who cannot stand doing groups with men over 45 because they just seem to have become so boring and pompous in groups, and it’s only the older women in a mixed group that generate the breakthrough ideas!

Indeed another moderator-colleague, Alison Leith pointed out that “in some cases young men are more cautious, and can require more encouragement than young women in a mixed group.” 


Caroline also made the point that it depends very much on the subject, “so you’ll get men more likely to dominate in a mixed-gender discussion about financial services, or cars.Too true. For technology too. We’ve also found that if for example you research husbands and wives together, and the subject is something like finance, the man will often be the one to (try to) do all the talking, whilst the wife, who’s the one actually choosing the plans etc, will (try to) stay quiet (- except we know how to work around this!).

When we are researching something that men and women are likely to experience together, whether as partners or as a group of friends, then it can create a really interesting and useful dynamic to get men and women bouncing ideas off each other, especially for product and concept development.


In subjects where women (unfortunately, albeit not incorrectly) still tend to be viewed as the experts, ie. most FMCGs, we would be less likely to recruit mixed-gender groups anyway. Homogeneity is also essential for product areas that could be sensitive or even embarrassing – and thereby inhibit responses – for one sex or other.


“Could it also be that men in some subjects take on a voice that paints them in a good light vs. women being more honest?” Yes indeed we thought, in response to this theory from Caroline – it does seem that men care more about their ego, think ‘peacock effect’, whilst women, certainly in a research group context, often show more empathy with the moderator, and are willing to tell it how it is.

Men do tend to put on more of a show in front of the ladies : the peacock effect

Men do tend to put on more of a show in front of the ladies : the peacock effect


This can also depend on whether the moderator is male or female, because men often like to impress female moderators (natural flirting mechanism) or ‘get in with’ a male moderator, whereas with women the opposite doesn’t tend to be true.


It is of course the fundamental skill of a good moderator to make everyone feel comfortable and involved enough to speak up (be it in the group of young men, or the married couple scenario as described above);  just as we tell respondents in our introductions, we intend to – and indeed make sure we do – hear everyone’s voices and opinions. A good moderator adapts their questioning style or uses structured techniques etc. to make sure this happens.

This was echoed by another researcher, Julia, who felt that no matter what the gender make-up of a group, “there are always dominant voices we have to try and quieten, and quieter ones we have to bring up in the discussion mix. It certainly doesn’t always follow that the loudest ones are male.” 

Alison couldn’t have agreed more: “In some mixed group discussions I have seen situations where it is the women who will be the most vociferous, and the men that we need to encourage. In a group with mums and dads, it can be that the mums take the lead, being perhaps more accustomed to making easy conversation with people they don’t know that well eg. at the school gates.” 


It definitely follows that where there is confidence about a subject, there is a loud voice. We undertake quite a lot of groups with professionals eg. in healthcare, but, because these are usually all experts in their field, we find they tend to respect each other enough to speak and let speak. We still may well have the younger professionals letting the more boring / opinionated speak first, inwardly raising their eyebrows, but then they will kick in with a vengeance!


It is a key criteria in recruitment that respondents are articulate and confident, and so we do expect them to be happy to speak up, and respondents who may start off quiet usually find their moment to voice opinions once they’ve had enough of hearing the loud ones go on and on!


Beyond that, we have techniques we can and do use to make sure we get to hear from everyone, especially when planning mixed-gender group discussions.

We often get respondents to write down initial impressions / top-line thoughts individually, instead of plunging straight into who wants to speak first thereby biasing everyone else to say the same thing.

Also, and it depends on the brief, but we may well build in break-outs or sub-groups into the sessions, in which we may well separate men and women, because they do think and approach things differently – especially when exploring more emotional territory.


No matter how gender-diverse the world is becoming in some respects, many projects still require finding out what each gender specifically thinks of a brand / brand communication / NPD ideas etc, although going forward, we will consider even more the male/female bias, and possible effect of mixed-gender dynamics on the contributions from both sides. (And no matter what the budgetary constraints that may too better lend themselves to heterogenous groups!)

There is also the far-from-small matter of organising fieldwork in (particularly non-) Western markets, where it would be decidedly disadvantageous even taboo to run mixed-gender groups for cultural reasons, inherent machoism and women simply not being allowed to speak up in the company of men. More on that soon, but meanwhile feel free to send us any thoughts or experiences you’ve had, good or bad, on the mixing (or not) of genders in research groups.


Leave a Reply