Why powerful women muzzle themselves

Victoria Brescoll
Victoria BrescollCourtesy Yale University / Today

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By Eve Tahmincioglu

Women are often told if they want power they have to speak up. So you’d think women leaders are chatting up a storm in boardrooms and in the halls of Congress.

Think again.

New research finds that even among women who hold powerful positions in government and business, they’re not making their voices heard as much as their powerful male counterparts, and for good reason.

“When women get power, talking a lot is seen negatively by other people,” said Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “They’re seen as domineering and controlling.”

Victoria BrescollCourtesy Yale University / Today

Brescoll’s study of leaders and their vocalizing is titled “Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations” and was published in the current issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.

In doing her research, Brescoll studied data from the U.S. Senate floor where the words spoken by all senators are recorded. She found that the most powerful male senators talked much more than powerful female senators.

In the study, she surmised that the difference could be a function of different genders having different ways of establishing rapport, “or because women are concerned about the potential backlash stemming from appearing to talk too much.”

The idea that women would be treated negatively if they did blab too much was supported by Brescoll’s additional research, where she had subjects rate hypothetical CEOs and politicians she created for research.

The women leaders who talked too much, according to the study, were rated as “significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who was reported as speaking for the same amount.”

And both male and female participants in the study held this perception.

So should women leaders just shut up? No way, according to Brescoll.

“Women don’t do things because they anticipate a backlash, but that just reinforces stereotypes and becomes a collective action problem,” she stressed. If women don’t all join voices and start chattering away, she added, “then the stereotype will persist and we’ll continue to have this double standard at work.”

Time to start bending some ears, gals!