Losing by Speaking Up

May 02 2012 Published by under faculty, women in science

A reader wonders, based in part on this discussion (on Bob Sutton's blog), about differences in how much men and women talk in professional settings, and how they are perceived as a result. In a nutshell, some studies have shown that talking a lot seems to benefit men but may be detrimental to women; for example, in the context of whether someone is considered to have leadership potential and/or in how seriously their ideas are considered.

A specific question is whether women who want to talk more hold back -- consciously or unconsciously -- and try to find effective "backdoor" ways to get their ideas across to a group.

Regarding that question, I can't speak much from personal experience (<-- that was an attempt at a joke) because personality does play some role in this. When in a meeting or other group, I do not hold back because I am worried that I will be less "likeable" or less respected. I am just not a talkative person, particularly in groups. If I have something I want/need to say, I say it, but (typically) no more than that. In my experience, this is an effective way to be listened to in some settings, but not in others (see the cartoon in the linked post above; I think many women will be able to relate to the experience illustrated).

In academic departments, there may also be an effect of seniority (and tenure status) on talkativeness (for both men and women), although some of the studies cited compare "powerful" men with "powerful" women (such as certain politicians), so this aspect is taken into account. Nevertheless, owing to the seniority imbalance in many STEM fields, it is quite common for, say, a conference to have many female grad students, postdocs, and untenured faculty participants but very few women at more senior levels. I think this will have an effect on who talks and how much they talk, and the results will break down on gender lines to some extent.

Questions for readers:

1. Have you ever "held back" your comments in a meeting (whether a professional conference or an institutional committee) because you were worried about being perceived as too talkative?

2. What is your gender and career stage (if you are willing to share this information)?

3. If you answered yes to #1, what made you think that being talkative would be a bad thing, other than being aware of the routine hatred that some of us have for people who prolong committee meetings?

4. Are you a naturally talkative person?





21 responses so far

  • Aceon says:

    I am and early stage female academic, and not a talkative person. If I have something to say in a meeting, I usually say it. I am sometimes concerned that I ought to talk a little more than I do, but then I am pretty far over on the silent end of the scale to begin with.

  • Anonymous says:

    1. Yes
    2. Female. PhD Candidate (one year left?)
    3. I do censor myself when I'm in a group (4+) and find that I am dominating the discussion or co-dominating it with one other person. I have found that I tend to dislike group discussions that are dominated by 1 or 2 people and so I try to be more inclusive when I find myself doing the same. Instead of just not talking as much, I actively try to get other people to join in by asking their opinions -- especially the people who have said very little. Sometimes it turns out that the other people have little to say and so I go back to (co-)dominating the conversation. But often, other people have interesting thoughts and points of view and information, and they just haven't had a chance to get a word in edge-wise.
    4. Um, yes, especially when I'm excited about something, or have a strong opinion. Which happens in most of the group discussions I attend in academia.

  • Colleen says:

    Dominating conversations is probably my worst academic habit. At the same time, some good has come of it. The other day myself and a classmate spent a good 5-10 minutes of class going back and forth about non-standard treatments for depression after he presented on it in class, and a third classmate piped up about a device investigation her lab is involved in, and the three of us met after class and 40 minutes later a tentative collaboration was in the works. I don't know if that would have happened if I hadn't derailed the class with our discussion. I figure my classmates can put up with 10 minutes of that in the name of science, right?

  • 1) Yes, but in specific situations I'll discuss in 3
    2) Female Ph.D candidate, 2-4 years left
    3) I can accidentally dominate discussions completely if no one stops me. So I will censor myself in the interest of encouraging others to talk, to the point of stopping myself and saying "I've said plenty, anyone else have input?" I learned this habit in high school, when during Socratic seminars, my teachers made me be moderator so that new students would be forced to speak up.
    4) Very. I can talk enough for several people. I try not to, though.

  • MD says:

    I am strange this way. I am an introvert and tend to get shy or quiet in big groups if I am meeting new people socially. But I never hold back in work situations. If anything, I have to take care to let other people speak and not monopolize the floor.

    When I was a grad student, it was a big surprise for me when a new (female) post-doc joined the team and had a different style than me. She would hold back or do things because "the PI is the boss". Before that, the concept never even entered my head (and yes, we had a very laid-back PI).

    I am currently post-doc/research staff working on a research career. The way it is set up in my institution, I have a PI mostly because in the UK EPSRC won't let non-teaching staff be PIs. But I write grants/hire people/manage projects mostly independently, with small amounts of feedback from the "official" PI. To an extent I think it's my talk-activeness that got me to this place. We were having problems, I had a lot of strong opinions, so I ended up expressing them and then staying to manage everyone.

    It may have helped that my PI is a woman, a very powerful one, and a very talkactive one, too. So our styles fit quite well.

  • GMP says:

    1. Yes, often. I have an impression that talking too much in professional context makes me appear silly, you know, like a woman. I do talk freely with people I know well (e.g. in collaborative meetings), and now that I am comfortable within my department I speak up too, but in professional settings where I am not entirely at home I try to keep my mouth shut.

    2. Female, associate prof (2 years past tenure).

    3. I don't know, it seems to me that people of great clout don't generally run their mouth. Seems that the gravity of what one says is inversely proportional to the amount they say; or at least it seems that's how people respond. This attitude appears amplified in regards to women.

    4. I am, very, and I don't consider it a virtue. When I get excited, I talk too much, and I can bore/smother people. So I generally try to curb my urges to talk (also, comment online 😉 ), with sporadic success.

  • Science Professor says:

    I just saw this highly relevant and interesting post at Athene Donald's blog: http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/

  • Polytrope says:

    1. No, but I do work hard on mentally formulating my input so that it is clear and to the point before I open my mouth. Jotting bullets on a piece of paper often helps.

    2. Female, Associate Professor.

    3. N/A

    4. Yup.

  • DJMH says:

    1. Yes and no. I'll sometimes hold back in local groups, like lab meeting or journal club, because otherwise I do tend to dominate. But I actively force myself to ask questions at seminars and conferences, despite getting nervous, because it is so dismaying to me that most/all questions come from men, even in audiences with gender parity.

    2. female postdoc

    3. The persistent bafflement I feel at people who are very smart but never say anything. Nothing's more frustrating than to ask a quiet person, AFTER the meeting, what she thought, only to find she had a very interesting question/contribution but didn't put it forward.

    4. Oh yes.

  • Anonymous says:

    1. Yes, all the time.
    2. Female, finishing the second year of my PhD.
    3. A whole host of things really. In a classroom I am still typically the most vocal even when I hold back, so I keep quiet in part to not stand out any more than I already do. I seem to have more perspective then many vocal audience members (having a question, but realizing it is not key to the presentation and letting it go). I also frequently assume I'm missing something that everyone else understands (I do usually figure out what the issue is, and then two minutes later someone asks the exact question I had).
    4. In some situations. I feel more talkative than I am. Sometimes I remember while talking to one other person that it's only fair that half the conversation should focus on me.

  • Anonymous says:

    1. Yes, especially when I'm knowledgeable about the topic, because I can get carried away and dominate the conversation.

    2. Female, tenured 15 years.

    3. Anger from supervisors that I hold strong opinions (especially when they conflict with the desired choice by said supervisors), statements that I'm not 'a team player' because I don't subordinate myself to men (and there aren't any other women, so I can't say "men and women") higher up in the authority chain, and a stated perception that I'm "aggressive", even though the same statements coming from a male colleague are accepted when mine are not.

    4. Only in certain situations: when I'm with one or two other close friends or family members, or when I'm absolutely certain of my facts and the supporting research.

    It makes me hugely angry that what are seen as positive character traits in a professional man (confident, not afraid to speak his mind, not afraid of confrontation) are classified as negative ones for a woman.

  • anon says:

    1. No. But I used to hold back comments because I was too insecure. I don't do that anymore.

    2. female, lost my position as asst prof due to collapse of the department (laid off). Now have a research position at a different university.

    3. N/A

    4. Not at all. I tend to keep quiet. Sometimes when I am in a one-on-one meeting, I feel I talk too much, and do so as a reaction to being nervous. I think I over-compensate for being an extreme introvert.

  • 1. Yes.

    2. Female Professor

    3. Being publicly reprimanded by male colleagues for interrupting (several times), and many many more subtle discouragements.

    4. Yes.

  • Busy says:

    1. Yes.

    2. Male professor

    3. It is important to listen as well as talk.

    4. Yes, and that is the only reason I answer Yes to question 1. I wouldn't sit quietly in a corner if I thought I had something important to contribute that hasn't been said.

    Lastly, in my experience the people who complain about women being too talkative, or bitchy or PMSy or touchy-feely or whatever-else-they-come-up-with, will always put them down, no matter what they do. So you can go ahead and ignore them altogether.

    We saw this during the civil rights movement, where radical black leaders were tarred for being radical and peaceful leaders were tarred for using judicial/legislative means to have changed effected. It was clear then that the opposition was to the principles of the matter and the criticism of the actions was just an excuse.

  • BugDoc says:

    1. No. But since I'm a highly opinionated person, I have sometimes tried to regulate my comments so I don't completely dominate discussions.

    2. Female, Associate Professor

    3. Out of interest, I have never been made to feel as if I talked too much (at least not to my face!) or that my input wasn't valued, but I acknowledge that the faculty in my department are unusually collegial and friendly.

    4. Yes.

  • Dr. Dad, PhD says:

    1) Yes

    2) Male, late postdoc (6+ years)

    3) I wanted to be viewed as a valuable member of the committee. I tend to run with the big wigs and didn't want to either say something stupid or appear like a yipping puppy. The age gap doesn't help that last one too much....

    I also confess that there are times when I have glanced around the room and thought to myself "how can I contribute to a discussion on the future of my field in a committee meeting that is filled with people that represent the top 5 of their specialization?" It is at these moments that I fear that I may appear to have a case of verbal diarrhea....

    4) Yes. Especially if I'm comfortable 🙂

    For context, I feel that I am lucky in that my particular STEM field embraces the contribution of women. Many are Nobel Laureates and most (including my graduate adviser) are visionary scientists...

  • ProbablyTooTalkative says:

    1. Have you ever "held back" your comments in a meeting (whether a professional conference or an institutional committee) because you were worried about being perceived as too talkative?

    YES, always feel like I'm trying to hold back. It's OK to hold back to refrain from dominating a situation and to let everyone have a say. I am happy to hang back in such situations. But often I feel I'm holding back for other reasons (see below), which are less happy-making.

    2. What is your gender and career stage (if you are willing to share this information)?

    Female, about to defend my dissertation, postdoc fell through so now I have to scramble for job scraps 🙁

    3. If you answered yes to #1, what made you think that being talkative would be a bad thing, other than being aware of the routine hatred that some of us have for people who prolong committee meetings?

    Many reasons, but one of them is a worry that being a woman who talks a lot feeds into an easy stereotype (something along the lines of females as chatterboxes gossiping about nothing), and I want to avoid anything that would encourage someone else putting me into a box rather than treating me as an individual. Another reason is that I haven't ever seen an example of a powerful, senior woman who has the same type of personality and level of talkativeness that I do -- mostly they tend to hang back and be more on the quiet side. That's not to say such a personality type is the only one that can succeed, but it does suggest that being quieter is the safer choice if you want to be successful. This conclusion makes me sad.

    4. Are you a naturally talkative person?

    YES. Though I often wish I were less so!

  • Cara says:

    Lastly, in my experience the people who complain about women being too talkative, or bitchy or PMSy or touchy-feely or whatever-else-they-come-up-with, will always put them down, no matter what they do. So you can go ahead and ignore them altogether.

    Yes, exactly this. Women get told they're talking too much OR being too quiet, sometimes in the same meeting. If a woman leads from behind she's being sneaky, if she states her case she's pushy, if she's nice she's too soft for business, if she's businesslike she's cold and unfriendly and unsuited for schmoozing.

    So, yes, women still get this nonsense, and the culture still makes women feel like it's their fault if they're not taken seriously.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I'm a male person. I vacillate between sitting there lumplike, and dominating the conversation. Once, having conversation over lunch, with several students and a couple of colleagues, I was in a talkative mode. One of the students eventually asked me, "Do you actually know everything?" I think about that from time to time and have not come to a definitive conclusion.

  • M.T. says:

    1. I never worry about being too talkative because I don't talk much.
    2.female, PhD candidate
    4. I'm not talkative in group settings (even if it is a social "fun" setting). I speak really slowly and am self conscious about that, so I usually have to think carefully about what I will say before I do so.