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Luke Malone

June 7, 2012

Women who want to get ahead prosper when they keep their mouths shut says a new study.Women who want to get ahead prosper when they keep their mouths shut says a new study. Photo: Virginia Star

Sure to confound those who deny the existence of gender inequality in the workplace, a study has found that women who want to get ahead prosper when they keep their mouths shut while their male counterparts are more successful the louder they become.

Researchers at the Yale School of Management say that women who talk “too much” in an office environment are perceived to be less competent than those who speak up infrequently – with the former considered to be “domineering and presumptuous” by their female co-workers, and even more so by men.

Conversely, males are perceived to project a sense of power and authority when voicing their opinions and are likely to be handed more responsibility as a result.

“People today still have strong gender stereotypes – or beliefs about what men and women are like and should be like,” said study author and organisational behaviour expert, Professor Victoria Brescoll. “For example, people tend to believe that women are less domineering than men and, also, that women should be that way. So when we encounter a woman – even a very powerful one – dominating a meeting at work by talking a lot, we see her as presumptuous and then tend to dislike her and give her less power and status.”

Published in Administrative Science Quarterly, the report was based on the feedback of 156 participants who were asked to read stories about fictional CEOs, with each secretly classified as either a talkative man, quiet man, talkative woman or quiet woman. They were then instructed to rate how competent they found each leader on a seven-point scale, with researchers measuring how talkative each character is by how many times they voiced a strong opinion in the article. Talkative men were given a competency rating of 5.64, whereas quiet men were given 5.11. Quiet women scored 5.62 and opinionated women scored the lowest of all at 4.83.

In a comparative study, respondents were asked their opinions about US Senators when they addressed an audience. Researchers noted a strong link between notions of power and capability when male senators spoke for long periods, but not so for females. They concluded that, between the two studies, female CEOs are considered less suitable for leadership roles compared to men when both genders voice opinions equally.

According to Professor Brescoll, these views can have a negative impact that extends beyond the individual to affect the companies themselves.

“Individual women are harmed by these beliefs because they can lead to gender discrimination,” she said. “And organisations are harmed because if people are biased against women, they might be less likely to get promoted and then organisations might not have the best, qualified people at the top.”

Carina Gardland, a gender and cultural studies lecturer at Sydney University, chalks up institutionalised discrimination to historical representation.

“Part of this has to do with the fact that women have not historically been visible in positions of power… and the push to make women visible has been necessarily about being loud and angry and demanding equal rights and recognition,” she said. “There is still an underrepresentation of women in positions of power in many areas of industry and public life, so it seems as though it is not the norm for women to be vocal and passionate. This is of course, all about stereotyping gendered behaviours and seeing power as masculine and being suspicious, then, about women in power.”

Double standards also exist in areas other than audibility, most clearly evidenced by the fact that women are often judged more harshly than men when it comes to workplace appearance.

An earlier study conducted by Harvard and Boston Universities and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found that women who wear makeup are seen to be more competent, amiable and trustworthy – and, hence, likely to get ahead in the workplace.

These extraneous considerations are especially visible when it comes to the dialogue surrounding women who are most in the public eye – politicians.

“We’ve seen Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard criticised for things that have absolutely nothing to do with their political prowess; Clinton has been called a ‘nag’ and Gillard’s voice has been lampooned constantly,” added Garland. “Of course, their bodies and the way they dress are also the subject of mockery and critique. But in terms of the way women are judged in relation to articulating important ideas and debating issues in a political context, I think Clinton and Gillard make it clear that the messages they deliver are often ignored and the focus of evaluation for their competency becomes their gender.”

Though it all paints a pretty retrograde picture – the ’60s housewife seemingly being reinvented in the workplace – Brescoll stresses that women shouldn’t try to alter themselves to fit the perceptions of others. And says that doing so could be to their professional detriment.

“What works for some women may not work with others… If women consciously try to alter how much they talk at work – for example, by talking a lot less in meetings – this could end up hurting them if they weren’t talking enough to begin with,” she said, adding that the cultural landscape is slowly changing for the better. “Every year there are more women moving into senior management positions and, theoretically, this should really help to erode gender stereotypes and, hopefully, biases against women… Researchers have seen some gender stereotypes change over the last 40 years.”

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