Why women talk less

This week on Newsnight, Evan Davis talked to three women about all-male panels—a subject made topical by the recent popularity of a tumblr set up to name and shame them. Why, he asked, are women so often un- or under-represented in public forums? Are they reluctant to put themselves forward? Are they deterred by the adversarial nature of the proceedings?

The women offered some alternative suggestions. Women don’t get asked, or if they do it’s assumed you only need one. Women aren’t seen as experts, unless the subject is a ‘women’s issue’. The age-old prejudice against women speaking in public means that any woman who dares to voice her opinions can expect to be deluged with abuse and threats.

But while all-male panels are obviously a problem, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Just ensuring that women are represented on a panel does not guarantee their voices will be heard.

Popular wisdom holds that women talk incessantly; research shows that in mixed-sex discussions it’s men who do most of the talking. The pattern is consistent, and statistically robust. The settings where it has been documented include not only laboratories, but also school and university classrooms, academic conferences, committee meetings, town meetings, Parliamentary debates and the comments sections of news websites.

Three explanations have been popular since the 1970s.

  1. Women are socialized to be unassertive: they’re reluctant to speak in public, and when they do enter public forums they don’t have the confidence to compete with men.
  2. Women aren’t interested in competing with men: they prefer a co-operative and supportive style of discourse to the adversarial mode that’s typical of male-dominated public forums.
  3. Women are silenced by men’s sexist behaviour. Men interrupt women, talk over them, mansplain to them, ignore their contributions when they do manage to get a word in and give credit to the man who makes the same point two minutes later.

For each diagnosis there’s a corresponding prescription. If the problem is female unassertiveness, the solution is for women to be more assertive. If the problem is that public discussions are conducted according to men’s rules rather than women’s, the solution is to get more women involved (the theory being that as their numbers reach ‘critical mass’, usually put at around 30%, their influence will begin to change the culture). If the problem is sexism, the solution is to challenge men’s behaviour.

If these solutions worked, we’d have cracked the problem long ago. But they don’t work, as we know from both experience and research.

Advice to be assertive is easier to give than to take. Most people in most situations would hesitate to challenge a colleague who interrupts by saying ‘stop interrupting me’. And they’d be right to hesitate: research suggests that people who use the strategies recommended on assertiveness training courses (be direct, make ‘I’ statements, repeat a point until it’s acknowledged) are seen as rude, aggressive and socially inept. If they’re women, the effect is magnified by the perception of their behaviour as ‘unfeminine’.

Increasing women’s numbers to 30%, or even 50% (desirable as that might be for other reasons) does not solve the problem either. The authors of a recent book (aptly titled The Silent Sex) found that men still out-talked women when the group was 60% female. Women only spoke as much as men when they outnumbered them 4:1.

You’re probably thinking: ‘OK then, what’s your solution?’ The truth is, I don’t think there’s a single, simple solution. The problem is more complicated than most discussions acknowledge: it’s not just about women being shrinking violets and/or men being overbearing jerks. Of course those may be factors, but they aren’t the whole story. Ultimately this is a story about the choices both men and women make under conditions of structural sexual inequality.

I know, that’s not exactly a catchy soundbite. But if you want to solve a problem, it helps to understand what you’re dealing with. So, let’s talk about some aspects of the problem that don’t tend to feature in popular accounts.

Women don’t support other women

What happens when people talk is affected by group dynamics. The speakers who contribute most aren’t always the ones who behave most assertively; often they’re the ones who get most support from other people. They are able to gain and hold onto the floor—without needing to act like jerks—because others invite them to speak, listen attentively to what they say, ask them questions and make responses which encourage them to continue. And these people are likely to be men. Women get less support from other speakers of both sexes.

In a study of same-sex group discussions among secondary school pupils, Judith Baxter found that boys who emerged as leaders were able to do so because other boys deferred to their suggestions, echoed their comments and laughed at their jokes. Among girls there were individuals who behaved in similar ways to the dominant boys, but their attempts to take the lead were less successful, because they were not supported by other girls. In fact, they were actively resisted and resented. The class teacher told Baxter that girls did not accept other girls’ authority, whereas no one had a problem with boys taking charge. The girls themselves were blunter, saying: ‘boys aren’t as bitchy as girls. And girls aren’t as bitchy to blokes’.

These girls were policing one another’s behaviour in accordance with the cultural norm which says authority and power are male prerogatives. Consequently they were reproducing, in an all-female group, the same resistance to authoritative female speech that disadvantages women in mixed-sex interactions.

Women are judged by a double standard

The girls in Baxter’s study were participating in a system that rewards girls and women for ‘feminine’ behaviour and punishes them for behaviour deemed ‘unfeminine’. In childhood and adolescence, what mainly keeps girls in line is the threat of being ostracized by their peers. That’s also a consideration for adult women, but they have to worry about other things as well.

For high-profile female public figures—politicians like Hillary Clinton, or public intellectuals like Mary Beard—the price of transgressing the norms of femininity is being pilloried by the media. In the business world your career may be blighted. A study of the performance evaluations given to men and women in the IT industry found that women’s evaluations, but not men’s, frequently included criticisms of their ‘abrasive’ manner. Like ‘bossy’ and ‘strident’ (also words which are rarely applied to men), ‘abrasive’ is code for ‘she talks too much/too forcefully’. It’s a clear double standard: what’s acceptable in men becomes a problem when women do it.

This is one reason why advice to be more assertive can backfire. It also suggests that women who don’t speak up may not have a problem with assertiveness at all. Some may be choosing not to compete directly with men, because they think the costs outweigh the benefits.

Women don’t break the rules

In classroom studies it’s a common finding that boys get more speaking time than girls, and one reason for that is that boys break the rules and get away with it. Rather than waiting for permission to speak, boys call out when they have something to say. Girls do this less often, and teachers’ reaction when they do it is much less tolerant. Something similar has been observed among adults—especially in male-dominated institutions where women are seen, and often see themselves, as ‘interlopers’.

In 1999, two years after the election of a record 119 women MPs, Sylvia Shaw carried out research in the House of Commons to investigate how the women were faring. At first glance it seemed they were holding their own: in proportion to their (much lower) numbers, they were contributing as much as men. But on closer inspection, this only applied to the ‘legal’ part of the debate. Women made far fewer ‘illegal’ interventions—turns defined as ‘out of order’, like comments interjected from a sitting position. At Westminster, illegal contributions make up a fair proportion of the overall proceedings, so by not breaking the rules women were losing out on both airtime and influence.

Shaw related this to their ‘interloper’ status. In interviews, some women told her they consciously avoided rule-breaking, because they wanted to make clear they knew how to conduct themselves (this is classic ‘interloper’ behaviour). But she also found that men were given more license to break the rules. Women who intervened illegally were more likely to be reprimanded by the Speaker.

Women don’t have strength in numbers

119 women MPs may have been a record number, but it was still less than 20% of the total. In public contexts it’s common for men to outnumber women, and this also contributes to their linguistic dominance.

The authors of The Silent Sex conducted an experiment to investigate how women’s participation in group discussion is affected by the gender composition of the group and the procedure used to make decisions. They put people into groups of five, composed to represent every possible male-female ratio, and asked the groups to deliberate on a question about the fairest way to distribute resources. Some groups were instructed to make their decision by majority vote; others were told their decision should be unanimous.

In a hypothetical just world, each person in a group would contribute equally, and each sex would contribute in proportion to its numbers. But that wasn’t what the study found. Women in mostly-male groups took up less than their fair share of the speaking time. By contrast, men in mostly-female groups took at least as much time as they were entitled to.

But the decision-making procedure made a difference. Women in mostly-male groups contributed more (though still less than their share) when decisions were made unanimously. This makes sense: if everyone has to agree, everyone also has to speak. But in groups where women outnumbered men, they did better with majority voting. Unanimous decision-making always helps the minority, and where men are the minority they exploit that to the max. As the researchers explain, ‘minority women leverage unanimous rule to reach equality, whereas minority men leverage it to exceed equality’.

Women don’t benefit from seniority

Most institutions are hierarchical, and the people at the top of the hierarchy have more authority to speak than those lower down. In many cases this puts women at a double disadvantage. As well as being in a minority, they are likely to be concentrated in the most junior positions.

A study of questions after presentations at an astronomy conference found that—in proportion to their numbers—men asked far more questions than women. The researchers explained this as an effect of seniority. Questions at academic conferences function as a display of the questioner’s own expert status, so they tend to be asked by higher-ranking academics. But in astronomy, seniority is gendered. The field was until recently extremely male-dominated; more women have entered it in the last decade, but they are still in the early stages of their careers. How many of them will advance to senior positions, and how quickly, remains to be seen.

The conclusion I draw from research is that in most situations, male linguistic dominance isn’t just a direct result of men being sexist. I’m not denying they can be sexist, and often are. I’m saying this is a hard problem to solve because usually men benefit from several different things working together: their numbers, their seniority, their ‘insider’ (rather than ‘interloper’) status, the preference of both sexes for male authority, and the choice some women make not to compete with men directly. At an abstract level these are all manifestations of the same problem—structural sexual inequality—but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

So, what can we do to change things?

As a supposed expert on this subject, I often get men telling me about some panel or board or committee they were on where the women barely spoke. What they think they’re proving is that the problem is intractable: that’s just the way women are. I ask them what the gender balance in the group was, how status was distributed, what procedures they followed and how discussions were facilitated. And then I bore them with a few research findings which suggest that if they changed some of those things, they might find women behaving differently. More of us could ask those questions; those of us with some institutional power could also do something about the answers.

Another thing we could do is make a conscious effort to support other women. Standing up for your own rights can make you look like the aggressive one; standing up for someone else’s makes you less vulnerable to that judgment. Rather than ‘stop interrupting me’, we could try ‘just a second, can we hear the end of Linda’s point?’ Or we could try to pre-empt the need for defensive measures by jumping in to acknowledge Linda’s contribution before she gets interrupted.

The way girls and women police their own and each other’s behaviour is another factor that contributes to the problem. Criticizing individuals is not the answer; what we need to do is address the conditions that make their behaviour a rational choice. We could start by examining our own attitudes to women’s speech. Feminists don’t use words like ‘abrasive’ and ‘strident’, but we do sometimes praise women for being nicer than men. If we want to see women in positions of authority, we can’t expect them to behave as if they were not in those positions.

Of course feminists want to see things done differently, with less of the arrogance, aggression and self-aggrandisement we criticize in men. But that doesn’t mean we should idealize the opposite, the deferential, conciliatory and self-effacing behaviour which is expected of women under patriarchy. Masculinity and femininity are both products of the same oppressive system. And we will never be able to change it if women can’t make their voices heard.