To Talk or Not to Talk


In honour of birthday-girl Hillary Clinton, I thought I’d write a post about gender bias and politics.  No matter your political views (and I’m Canadian so it doesn’t matter anyway), you can’t argue that Hillary is a remarkable leader.  And as a female leader, she has overcome many more obstacles than you could imagine.

One specific obstacle is explored in research by Yale professor Victoria L. Brescoll.   In her research, Dr. Brescoll examined gender differences in volubility (the amount of time an individual spends talking) in the US Senate.  It was originally thought that as a person’s status/prestige/power (whatever you want to call it) increased, so did the amount of time they spent talking.  However, Dr. Brescoll found that this relationship was only true for men.

This may seem trivial, but consider this:  People who speak more, are in turn perceived to be more powerful and more likely to be considered a leader.  And with more power, men speak more, thereby further increasing their power.  It’s a reciprocal relationship that heightens the status of men, leaving women behind.

So why don’t women with power also speak more?

The answer, as Dr. Brescoll found, seems to be women’s feared backlash from talking too much.  Because of the social norms associated with gender (women shouldn’t be seeking positions of power!), social and economic penalties are given to those women who seem to be breaking those norms.  These penalties aren’t obvious, but are very real, and could come in the form of missed promotions, being labelled “bossy” or “bitchy” by others, or having your clothing choices commented upon by the media while you are seeking political office.  All because women with power “talk too much”.  (It’s important to note here that this works the other way too: Men with power who are perceived as not talking enough are seen as less competent and can be similarly penalized for not adhering to gender norms).

So… what does this all mean and what do we do about it as leaders?

Of course we can’t change social norms overnight, but with knowledge about these biases and gender discrimination, eventually women who talk (and men who don’t) won’t be penalized for their behaviour.

Until then, being aware of these biases can inform our own behaviours and strategies in the workplace.  Back when Hillary was campaigning for New York Senate, her political strategy was to embark on a “Listening Tour“.  While Hillary was already a powerful woman, who was seeking even more power, by actively focusing on not talking as much she was viewed a competent leader.

Yes, it’s frustrating that we have to consider these things as working women, but by consider this as a strategic move, maybe we can quietly chip away at that glass ceiling and then change things from the top!

To read Dr. Brescoll’s entire paper, click here!


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