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