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Why it's hard for women to speak up in meetings


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It's infuriating when it happens in a meeting: You know you have a unique take on the problem at hand, but when a colleague shows off a pair of particularly smarty pants -- well, it's hard to get the guts to voice your dumb old opinion.

But here's a bit of encouraging news: Those insecurities are probably all in your head, and that's especially true if you're a woman.

The social dynamics of a group setting can actually lower the IQ scores of some people, according to a recent study led by scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to spy on the brains of people working in small groups.

They tested the volunteers' IQ to get a baseline figure, then (cruelly) shared those scores with the group. Now everyone in those little groups knew where they stood, intelligence-wise -- and knowing their rank was enough to shake the confidence of some group members, particularly among the women. The participants were again given an IQ test, and even though initially all the subjects scored above average, the second test showed a much wider range of scores.

Researchers then divided the study subjects up into two groups based on their second IQ test to perform a series of tasks: the smarties with the higher scores versus the relative dunces with the lower scores. Of the 13 women who participated in the study, just three of them ended up in the higher-scoring group -- the rest landed with the dunces.

"The way we organize our business is completely built around small groups," Read Montague, co-author of the study and director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, told TODAY.

"We used to think that ranking the group and rating the group provides a measure -- how are you performing in your job -- but in fact maybe in some settings that damages the performance of the group in ways you don't want to damage it."

Remember, this divide only happened after everyone discovered how they ranked in intelligence as compared to the rest of the group. One theory: Women might be more sensitive to social cues, and more likely to worry about the perceptions of others -- which might mean, in the real world, some great ideas aren't being shared.

But on the bright side, as one woman told TODAY producers in an earlier interview, that sensitivity could also be considered a strength. "Let's use that to our advantage," said Joanna Stone Herman. "And let's actually be stronger and communicate better, because we know that we are picking up on these cues better, and we may be able to be that much more impactful."

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