Concerned about the negative consequences of appearing to be too outspoken, powerful women talk less than others in their organisations, while powerful men talk more, according to research by Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Yale School of Management.
Brescoll studied the amount of time men and women in powerful roles talk. She found that men with more power talk more than men with less power, but no significant difference in how much high- and low-power women talk.
“When men talk a lot and they have power, people want to reward them either by hiring them, voting for them, or just giving them more power and responsibility at work,” said Brescoll. “But when women do it, they are seen as being too domineering, too presumptuous. Women perceive this, and that’s why they temper how much they talk.”
This finding was replicated in an experiment in which Brescoll asked 206 participants to imagine themselves as either the most powerful or least powerful member in a team meeting at work. They were then asked a series of questions about how much they would talk and other behaviours. The high-power men reported that they would talk more than the low-power men, while high-power women said they would talk the same amount as low-power women and men. Further analysis revealed that only the high-power women adjusted their talking time over concerns of being disliked, perceived as “out of line” or controlling, and other reasons consistent with a fear of experiencing backlash.
Brescoll found that powerful women are justified in their fear of incurring backlash from appearing to talk too much. In a final experiment, both male and female participants rated a hypothetical female CEO who talked more than other CEOs as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who spoke for the same amount of time.
In addition, a female CEO who talked less than others was judged as equally competent and deserving of leadership as a high-power male CEO who talked more than others. A high-power male CEO who talked less than others was rated as equally incompetent and unsuitable for leadership as the talkative high-power woman.
“What’s ironic is that good leaders tend to also be good listeners. So harshly judging female leaders for talking ‘too much’ could have negative consequences not just for individual women, but also for organizations,” said Brescoll.
The study “Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations” is published in Administrative Science Quarterly.