Anonymity and Gender in Virtual Teams
Anonymity is a crucial feature in collaborative systems and refers to the inability ofteam members to identify the origin and destination of messages received and sent (Valacich et al., 1992). Drawing from the social identity model of deindividuation (Spears & Lea, 1992), anonymity within a social group would encourage deindividuation which maximizes the opportunity of group members to give full voice to their collective identities. Deindividuation behaviors decreases people’s adherence to norms that emerge with the group. Anonymous communication thus promotes a low-threat environment, reduces evaluation apprehension, and breaks down social barriers and conformance pressures.
Some studies have shown that anonymity improves the performance of teams (Tyran et al., 1992), and in turn promotes participation equality and increases the number of ideas generated and the quality of the decision (Nunamaker et al., 1991). However other research reveals that anonymity did not affect the interaction of users.
For instance, a field study comparing the use of a group support system and traditional collaboration revealed that while parallelism and meeting memory was consistently found to increase the participation of group members, anonymity did not affect user participation (Dennis & Garfield, 2003).
The interplay between gender and anonymity in virtual teams could result in several changes. Team members, who traditionally participate less in face-to-face context, such as the females, are more likely to express themselves (Flannigan et al., 2002). Through the use of anonymity technological features, gender as a status characteristic is eliminated which weakens gender based expectations in conversation (Herschel, 1994).
In anonymous virtual teams, females enjoy interacting anonymously more than males, participate more than males, and perceive higher acceptance of ideas (Flannigan et al., 2002; Weber, Wittchen, & Hertel, 2009). In a computer-mediated experiment, Weber and colleagues (2009) found that anonymous females had higher effort and performance than identified females while identified males had higher performance compared to anonymous males in team tasks. The authors explained that females tend to engage in gender – specific norms under identified conditions and non-congruent gender roles in anonymous conditions i. e. females became more competitive in anonymity. On the other hand, males put in more effort in the identified condition as they want others to have a favorable impression of themselves (Weber et al., 2009).
However, other research has demonstrated that even with such anonymity, genders were accurately guessed. Crowston and Kammerer (1998) demonstrated that males contribute significantly more to discussions than other participants do in an anonymous setting. Researchers explain that different gender linguistic styles, such as females being reassuring and soothing compared to males being aggressive, will reveal the gender of members (Herring, 1996). This could potentially downplay the effects of gender and anonymity in online communication.
In addition, some research has found that it is not anonymity per say that affects gendered group dynamics and outcomes; rather, it is the task or topic of discussion. Thomson (2006b) posited that anonymous participants assimilate to the group norm as cued by the gender stereotype of the discussion topic due to communication accommodation. The study found that for male stereotypical topics (sports, cars), participants had higher frequency of opinions, directives, insults and adj ectives while for female stereotypical topics (fashion, shopping), more personal information, questions, agreements, self-derogatory comments were shared. This shows that participants are influenced by the language style used by others as well as their expectations of how the social group would speak.