When people make claims about behavior in groups, my job as an organizational psychologist is to look at the evidence. The pattern is clear and consistent: It’s usually men who won’t shut up. Especially powerful men.
In a study of U.S. senators, those who had more leadership roles, seniority, committee assignments, influence, legislative activity and earmarks in spending bills took up more time on the Senate floor — but only if they were men.
Why didn’t having status and influence lead women to be more vocal? Experiments showed that women weren’t worried about building rapport. They were afraid of being perceived as too dominant and controlling, which is exactly what happened when they did speak up. Gender stereotypes persist. People expect men to be assertive and ambitious but women to be caring and other-oriented. A man who runs his mouth and holds court is a confident expert. A woman who talks is aggressive or pushy.
This helps explain why meetings are full of “manologues.” Political scientists find that when groups of five make democratic decisions, if only one member is a woman, she speaks 40 percent less than each of the men. Even if the group has a majority of three women, they each speak 36 percent less than each of the two men. Only in groups with four women do they each finally take up as much airtime as the one man.
In too many teams and too many workplaces, women face the harsh reality that it is better to stay silent and be thought polite than speak up and jeopardize their careers. As Mori said of the Tokyo committee, “We have about seven women at the organizing committee, but everyone understands their place.” If you think women talk too much, it could be because you expect them to talk so little.
When women take the risk of speaking up, they’re often silenced by men. In the Supreme Court, research reveals that male justices are about three times as likely to interrupt female justices as one another. Over a 12-year period when women were 24 percent of the justices, they were the perpetrators of just 4 percent of the interruptions but the recipients of 32 percent. In 2015, when there were six men and three women on the bench, 66 percent of the interruptions were of the women.
Manterrupting — as journalist Jessica Bennett calls it when men are guilty of “talk-blocking” — is widespread. In a meta-analysis of 43 studies, men were more likely than women to talk over others — especially in intrusive ways that silenced the rest of the room and demonstrated their dominance. At least Kanye West promised to let Taylor Swift finish when he took the mic from her.
But maybe men don’t intend to offend. Maybe men see interruptions as a sign of engagement, whereas women take them as a display of disrespect. Not so, says a recent study of 5,000 Americans listening to men and women interrupt with identical scripts. Men judged women as ruder, colder and less intelligent than men interjecting with the exact same words. Women showed no gender bias; they evaluated male and female interrupters the same way.
Since these studies were done in Western cultures, a natural question is how things play out in the East. Sure enough, Japan is different when it comes to gender bias. It tends to be worse. In the World Economic Forum’s 2018 ranking of 149 countries by gender equality, Japan ranked 110th — trailing behind not-so-egalitarian countries like Brazil, Ghana, Guatemala, Hungary and Russia.
Mori has his own explanation for why women talk too much. “When one person raises a hand, others think they need to speak up as well,” he mansplained. “… Women are competitive.” But the data tells us the opposite. Economists find that when men and women are paid to solve problems, they do equally well. But if they’re told their pay will depend on whether they solve more problems than others, women do worse — especially if they’re told they’re competing against men. Women are often reluctant to compete against men, and it doesn’t stem from biology. It stems from power. In patriarchal cultures like Japan, men are more competitive than women, but that pattern reverses in matrilineal cultures, where women compete more than men.
One hallmark of a patriarchal culture is precarious manhood. The core idea is that masculinity is hard to win but easy to lose. Men face pressure to demonstrate their superiority and strength. An assertive woman can be a threat to a fragile male ego. In countries and companies dominated by alpha males, women are often expected to be seen but not heard. Much ink has been spilled helping them figure out how to walk this tightrope. Women have received many tips on how to disagree without seeming disagreeable, challenge without being too confrontational, raise their voices without shouting.
But maybe it’s overconfident men who need to change. In studies of over 100,000 leaders, although men were more confident in their leadership skills, women were rated as more competent leaders by others. In evaluations from their bosses, women outscored men on 17 of 19 key leadership capabilities. And researchers have found that in the early months of the pandemic, covid mortality rates were lower in countries with female leaders and U.S. states with female governors. Of course, there are exceptions, but on average women introduced lockdowns sooner and faced less resistance — in part because they were more likely to acknowledge people’s fears and express compassion for their pain.
It’s not that women are necessarily naturally better listeners and leaders than men, but that women have had to master these skills to succeed within the shackles of gender stereotypes.
If a woman pointed all this out, she’d be accused of whining and complaining. A growing body of evidence reveals that when women (and racial minorities) advocate for diversity, they tend to get penalized for being self-serving and nepotistic. When (white) men make the same case, we’re more likely to get heard. Recognizing this injustice is the first step toward changing it.
When asked at a news conference whether he genuinely thinks women talk too much, Mori responded, “I don’t listen to women that much lately, so I don’t know.” And therein lies the problem.