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Want to get ahead in business? Shut your mouth

Date

Luke Malone

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.”

59 comments so far

  • I'm a teacher. The Head of my department is a loud, opinionated, clueless, old-fashioned bully. All mouth, no ears. Resistant to reform, a thief of ideas, big noting and brown nosing. Horrible. A Napoleon Complex derived from insecurity. We all can't stand him/her. Most colleagues have learnt to keep their mouths shut in order to expedite matters. I argue for common sense and modern pedagogical practice... and thus my days are numbered.

    Commenter
    no gender
    Location
    hong kong
    Date and time
    June 07, 2012, 12:02PM
    • 'We all can't stand him/her.' Is the person's gender indeterminate?

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 4:04PM
    • If you're from Hong Kong, can't help you because i think it's referring to Aussie culture.

      Commenter
      Gerson
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 4:15PM
    • Sorry, I meant 'it'.

      Commenter
      no gender
      Location
      hong kong
      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 4:16PM
    • This is very unfortunate that your Head of Department is a bully.

      Come to Australia - School Principal's will soon be able to choose their own staff, so someone like whom you are describing could be fired by the school in the future.

      This is the way it should be - non performers should be sacked.

      Commenter
      The Future is Bright
      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 5:20PM
    • Yes, keeping your mouth shut is the strategy of being successful in failing companies...gets you up to the middle manager level under incompetent leadership.

      Then, when everything else is failing they are thrust into true leadership roles and fail badly.

      Commenter
      Flingebunt
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      June 08, 2012, 9:15AM
    • Sorry, I live in Hong Kong and head principles in here can already choose their own staff.

      Commenter
      DXM
      Location
      Pok fu lam Hong Kong
      Date and time
      June 08, 2012, 10:54AM
  • "Brescoll stresses that women shouldnt try to alter themselves to fit the perceptions of others"

    Correct, and neither should men.

    Commenter
    Steve Up North
    Location
    Right Here
    Date and time
    June 07, 2012, 12:05PM
    • I think the main problem is that men (and some women) feel threatened by women in a business environment.

      Men feel threatened that opinionated women might get ahead or seem more intelligent than them, and admittedly, a lot of women also feel threatened by other opinionated women.

      Sad but, in my opinion, true.

      Commenter
      EK
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 12:22PM
      • Isn't your remark a sexist stereotype in itself?

        Commenter
        HighlyDubious
        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 1:03PM

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