What’s wrong with research about female bosses

June 4, 2013

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A bevy of research tells us that—even in the year 2013—professional women are regularly disparaged when they’re seen as too vocal.

Case in point, Dr. Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale, recently found in her research that talkative women are seen as less competent than quieter female professionals (and talkative males). She asked her study subjects to read articles about fictional CEOs and then to rate the CEOs’ competency on a scale of one to seven. The talkative male CEOs got an average rating of 5.64, while talkative women scored 5.11. What’s even more interesting—and scary—is that the ratings dropped for quiet male bosses but increased for quiet female bosses. That is, female leaders appeared more competent the less they opened their mouths.

Now, as much as Brescoll’s findings may accurately remind us that real gender stereotypes still exist in the workplace, I don’t find research like this useful. In the end, such studies only hold women back. These data don’t implore women to have a voice and use it. More than anything, their splashy headlines paralyze and silence ambitious women.

Why does so much of our academic research on women’s leadership still focus on biases rather than strategies?

Query any group of female executives and you’ll hear from a majority that they moved up because they used their voices. Having personally interviewed dozens of successful women, the advice they most often emphasize is, “Behind every woman who gets promoted is…herself.”  Meaning we must advocate, campaign and sometimes even argue our way upward.

Speaking up matters because interaction, particularly verbal exchange, tends to inform and shape social dynamics, especially hierarchies. And nowhere are these forces more alive than in the workplace. It’s our words—how we use them and what we say—that give us sway within an organization and establish us as capable of leadership. We may be judged more harshly as a talkative boss, but we’ll never get to be boss in the first place if we don’t talk.

Add to this that women may be hardwired to speak more than men do. New research out of the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine found that girls consistently had more of the “speaking protein” in their cortex—a brain region associated with language—than similarly aged boys had.

Speaking openly and having command of our own voice helps us shape our everyday decision-making. At its barest bones, communication is a method for self-agency and autonomy. And for women in particular, it provides an alternative to accepting workplace stereotypes.

So in our zeal to educate women about leadership opportunities and hurdles, let’s be sure we actually like the message we’re sending. Yes, vocal women may in fact get penalized more than their quiet counterparts—but when we dial back our voices, we also dial back our chances to prove the bias wrong. Let’s stop encouraging women to do the impossible communication dance of a politician, moving a few obsequious words around without actually saying much.

Is it the most novel, breakthrough approach in leadership to argue that women should embrace speaking up? Perhaps not. But conflicting messages are making women ambivalent about leadership. On one hand you have Sheryl Sandberg telling you to lean in and, on the other, research says “Mind your mouth.” The only way to move past—and change—troublesome perceptions is to show that a powerful woman with a voice isn’t such a rare and wrong thing after all.

Selena Rezvani is the founder and president of Women’s Roadmap and author, most recently, of “Pushback.”

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