When Victoria Brescoll was working in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s office back in 2004, she helped piece together legislation and write speeches, drafting words for the New York senator as part of a fellowship sponsored by the Women’s Research and Education Institute. Little did Brescoll know that one day, in an effort to study power and gender differences, she’d actually be counting those words Clinton said on the Senate floor.
Now an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, Brescoll has recently published a paper in the Administrative Science Quarterly that looks at how much men and women who hold powerful positions talk in group settings. Her study found that while men who have high-power positions tend to talk much more than men without very powerful jobs, the difference in how much women in high- and low-power roles talk in group settings, on average, turns out to be insignificant. While that may not be surprising to many, Brescoll wanted to find out both why it happens and illustrate its actual occurrence in the real world.
Her hypothesis? Women — even those in power — purposely curtail how much they speak in a group because they’re aware, whether they like it or not, that being too outspoken can be off-putting. “When men talk a lot and they have power, people are like ‘oh, that’s fantastic, I’d vote for him.’ But when women do it, they are seen as being too domineering, too presumptuous. Women perceive this, and that’s why they temper how much they talk.” Or as Stanford professor Bob Sutton put it in a blog post about Brescoll’s work, “The blabber mouth approach works for guys, but backfires on women.”
To examine this question, Brescoll designed three studies. The first had her turning back to the upper chamber as her guinea pig. Not only is every word a Senator utters on the floor recorded by C-SPAN and the Congressional Record, but each member’s relative power can also be quantified. A firm called Knowlegis (now part of CQ Roll Call) had produced “power scores” for each senator based on their position, indirect influence, legislative activity and earmarks, and Brescoll compared the C-SPAN data with Knowlegis’ 2005 and 2007 scores.
Brescoll found that while male senators with high power scores tended to talk much more on the Senate floor than their less influential male counterparts, the difference between how much powerful and less powerful female senators talked was negligible. “It’s an interesting proxy,” Brescoll says. Unlike for the men in the Senate, and “regardless of political party affiliation, there’s a weak and statistically insignificant relationship between how much power [women] have and how much they actually talk.”
Brescoll admits that the relatively small number of women in the Senate could have had an impact, but she found similar results in other experiments she conducted. In one, she presented 206 people with a description that told them how much power they had on a team, and then asked them a number of questions about how they would behave and how much they would talk. She found the same thing: Men who were told they had high-powered roles were significantly more likely to say they’d speak out than the less powerful men, whereas the women’s scores were roughly equal.
A third experiment tested whether women are justified in their fears that asserting many opinions will provoke a backlash. And indeed, both men and women participants gave lower marks to chattering female leaders than their gabby male peers.
The irony of Brescoll’s findings, of course, is that most leadership experts agree good leaders are also good listeners. People who hold positions of power should spend more time taking in information, synthesizing it and thinking about how to put it to work than sucking up the air in the room blabbing about what they plan to do. While Brescoll’s research may be useful in warning us to be aware of our inherent biases, it’s also a reminder that people in power should be judged not by how much they talk, but by how well they listen. Good leadership isn’t about who has the floor. It’s about who makes the best decisions with what’s said by those who have it.
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