#Leadership & Power: Good Girls Don’t Talk

Find “your voice”, “speak your mind”, if I hear this advice to women one more time, I think I’m going to scream. Why? Because at least for high powered women, speaking your mind may result in backlash.

A recent study by Victoria Brescoll suggests that a high powered female CEO who was perceived to talk more than the average CEO was ranked by both male and female observers as less competent and less “suitable for leadership” than a male CEO who spoke for an equal amount of time. It also showed that male CEOs who were less talkative than average was seen as less competent and less suitable for leadership than a more talkative male CEO.

Powerful women reported reducing their volubility (or the amount of time they spoke in a group), because they feared backlash. And that backlash is real, if the study is accurate. Less powerful women did not reduce their contributions, however, their contributions were different than those of men.  Women were more interested in developing and maintaining relationships with others in the group, while men were more interested in establishing dominance.

Here is the unfortunate result of this research. It suggests the double bind that women experience in leadership roles. In order to be perceived as powerful and competent, they must act in a way that is inconsistent with power.  So if leaders talk, and powerful leaders talk more, but women aren’t allowed to talk, then they can not acquire power.  You get my drift.

This makes me sad, frustrated and angry all at once.  As an extroverted, talkative person, I hate this. But I can’t change it. I can only be aware of it. And I can work with my students to help them understand this double standard. If both men and women can see how their gender role expectations influence their judgements of both men and women, the possibility exists that we can reduce the impact of these judgements in the future. Maybe. Meantime, I’m going to be a bit more judicious in encouraging my female students to “find their voice”.

Source: Brescoll, Victoria L. “Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly 56, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 622–641.

3 replies »

  1. I certainly agree with the “sad, frustrated and angry” conclusion about this research. There is no reason to question the conclusions of Brescoll’s research, yet I’d like to see it repeated when there is a better distribution of gender in CEO roles. ( How long have we been hoping for that?) My small objection is that she’s measuring minority behavior within a majority group. Typically, the conclusion for “effectiveness” is that the minority should behave more like the majority. It makes me want to scream- one of the many reasons I’ll never be a large company CEO.

  2. For me, ‘finding your voice’ means nothing more than knowing what you stand for. Finding that ‘voice’ can be done in a variety of ways. I’d put reading a lot and writing at the top of the list for best ways to clarify what it is that any one individual stands for … or, ‘their voice’.

    I agree that being aware of the ‘perceptions’ of others is a very real concern for all good leaders. Women in leadership should therefore be aware that they will be judged more harshly than men for using the same amount (volubility) of words.

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