Fearing Backlash, Powerful Women Curtail How Much They Talk at Work

New Haven, Conn., May 3, 2012—Concerned about the negative consequences of appearing to be too outspoken, powerful women talk less than others in their organizations, while powerful men talk more, according to research by Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior 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."

To study the relationship between gender, power, and talking time, Brescoll turned to the United States Senate, where every word spoken is recorded. For each senator during the 2005 and 2007 congressional sessions, she analyzed gender, the amount of time they spoke on the Senate floor using footage from C-SPAN cross-referenced with the Congressional Record, and a "power score" based on position, indirect influence, legislative activity, and earmarks calculated by Knowlegis, a non-partisan private firm.

Brescoll found a strong positive relationship between power and talking time for the male senators, but no such effect for the female senators. Male senators with higher power scores talked more on the Senate floor than less powerful male senators, while there was no significant difference in the amount of time powerful female senators spoke compared to less powerful female senators.

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 behaviors. 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.