Group formation – the role of gender identity

This is the 16th post in a series titled ‘All Things Group Work’ and written in collaboration with Simon Nagy from the University of Adelaide*. The home page is here.

Hadjar et al. (2014), suggest that females outperform males in formal educational settings. Garcia et al. (2022) extends this to state that all-female groups outperform both mixed and all-male groups. Also noteworthy, is the finding that a single female-identifying student in an otherwise all-male group may experience bias against them. 

A reasonable extrapolation would argue that group formation would be best directed by ensuring that males and females be separated, or in worst-case scenarios, that a female is never left on her own in a group. However, we have two problems with this deduction: firstly, such binary measures of gender are no longer relevant and so selecting females and males will be problematic, and secondly, because the formation of every group will always be a unique entity due to different temperaments, the research is limited in scope and therefore can’t be generalised.  

But what the research achieves by highlighting the male/female performance imbalance in groups is the offering of insights into why the imbalance exists. Group dysfunction results when people aren’t allowed to participate equally, and when communication between peers is poor. 

Establishing equal participation 

Whilst Roper (2019) suggests that implicit gender bias against females remains inherent in society, the situation has improved since Moss-Racusin’s et al (2017) identification that the bias was so prevalent in Science Faculties that even females displayed implicit bias against other females. A consequence of the bias is that females are often relegated to having to do the “pink tasks”: work that receives little formal recognition but is essential to an effective group and high-quality final product (Brough et al., 2011). 

When these pink tasks, which may include having to organise the group, lead the group’s direction, or manage its output, are in addition to the actual task related to content, inequity ensues. To ensure this doesn’t occur, highlight to students before the project begins, through explicit discussion, what types of tasks will need to be completed. The importance of defining what the tasks are in a project has been discussed before, but it is vital that the implicit skills labelled as pink tasks are made explicit and factored into the planning and distribution process. A dedicated activity in a tutorial will help facilitate this awareness.  

Developing communication skills 

Garcia et al (2022) propose that more successful groups are those who are able to communicate effectively, both when issues arise during a project and when help is needed. When either of these communications is neglected, it inevitably leads to one or more in the group feeling unheard, and isolated. Isolation reduces motivation. Ford et al. (2017) suggest however that when there exists peer parity, ’When an individual can identify with at least one other peer when interacting in a community’, help-seeking is typically more prevalent. The help-seeking may not be only about content, but also about resolving issues.   

Teaching students what constitutes successful communication and encouraging them to practice the skills in a tutorial setting will provide them with the capability to speak up when necessary and to handle conflict should it arise. By doing so, students who typically withdraw from tasks because of feelings of inequity have a much better chance of remaining present and fulfilling their potential.     

Seeking peer parity 

The above strategies are preventative in nature, delivered to students before group formation is even initiated. Now that students are armed with skills that will mitigate against two significant determinants of group dysfunction, it is worth considering other elements that may affect group dynamics, and therefore group success. That is the subject of the next post.  

*I would like to acknowledge several members of the Learning Enhancement and Innovation team at the University of Adelaide whose careful thinking on this topic provided me with a more informed understanding of the role of gender in groups. Members include Georgia, Dalestair, Dem, Aaron and Rebecca.


Brough, S. & Bauer, A. & Brooks, K. & Hopkins, A. & Maddison, S. (2011). Women in Astronomy Workshop Report. 

Ford, D., Harkins, A., Chris P. (2017). Someone Like Me: How Does Peer Parity Influence Participation of Women on Stack Overflow? In proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC) | October 2017. DOI 

Hadjar, A., Krolak-Schwerdt, S., Priem, K., & Glock, S. (2014). Gender and educational achievement [Editorial]. Educational Research, 56(2), 117–125.

Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J.F., Brescoll, V.L., Graham, M.J., Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 9;109(41):16474-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109. Epub 2012 Sep 17. PMID: 22988126; PMCID: PMC3478626. 

Roper, R.L. (2019). Does Gender Bias Still Affect Women in Science? Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2019 Jul 17;83(3):e00018-19. doi: 10.1128/MMBR.00018-19. PMID: 31315903; PMCID: PMC6710458. 

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger or on LinkedIn


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