This morning, a redditor who goes by “Nettonaut,” posted a thorny question on the TwoXChromosomes subreddit. The woman said her male bosses tell her to “talk less and listen more” and wanted to know: Is this a gender thing? Although it’s hard to make any sort of ruling on this particular case, this redditor’s question does highlight a more general issue for women in the workplace: Research shows that men are afforded more verbal “space” than their female colleagues. Men dominate meetings, while women are interrupted more frequently by both men and women — and, significantly for this redditor, women tend to be perceived as talking more than they actually do.
“I have had two successive male bosses at my job who talk ALOT — who often interject while someone is talking to say ‘let me stop you fora moment’ etc. — give me feedback that I have to ‘talk less and listen more,’” Nettonaut wrote. “I am definitely not shy with contributing, but I have also always made an effort to listen and include others in the conversation and decision-making.”
Nettonaut admitted that talking too much may certainly be something that she should address, but she pointed out that this advice hasn’t been consistent among her supervisors. While her male bosses have advised her to pipe down, she said that the “senior female ladies” at her work tell her that she’s “firm and a critical thinker/team player.” She asked her fellow redditors, “[H]as anyone else experienced this kind of difference between feedback from male vs. female bosses?”
It’s impossible to judge from Nettonaut’s post whether her male bosses’ critiques are rooted in sexism or not. It’s entirely possible that their perceptions of her as overly talkative have nothing to do with her gender, and that it’s only coincidence that her female superiors haven’t offered the same feedback.
It’s fair to say, however, that whatever the particulars of this case may be, it does speak to broader ways that workplace communication functions along gender lines. Decades of research have shown that women often face an uphill battle when it comes to being heard at work. Although the stereotype that women speak more than men do is persistent, it’s false. Studies show that men dominate discussions in key settings. A 2012 study, for example, found that as much as 75 percent of conversation in professional meetings comes from men. Male students also tend to speak more than women in classrooms, from elementary school all the way through grad school. Multiple studies show that women are interrupted significantly more often then men (by both men and women).
Unfortunately, the solution to these disparities isn’t simply “Speak up, ladies!” Research shows that people tend to overestimate how much women speak; that is, they perceive women to talk more than they actually do, which means that, even when women don’t dominate conversations, they can be perceived as doing so. And women who are seen as too talkative are punished for it. A 2012 Yale study, for instance, found that employees rank male executives who speak more than their peers as more competent than their quieter colleagues. But when female execs speak more than their peers, their volubility has the opposite effect: They’re seen as less competent than their less talkative peers.
So, to the redditor who wants to know if her bosses’ advice that she speak less has to do with gender: Take your bosses’ feedback seriously, and take a long, careful look at your own communication style. You may want to ask your bosses for a more specific description of what aspect of your verbal behavior they find objectionable. But if you’re hearing “speak less” from your male bosses — and not your female ones — and if they seem to apply a different standard to you and to your male colleagues — it’s also fair to take their words with a grain of salt.