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The stark reality of how men dominate talking in meetings

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
<span>Scores of studies outline the ways men dominate speaking in business-focused contexts. </span>Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty
Scores of studies outline the ways men dominate speaking in business-focused contexts. Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty

If you have ever found it difficult to get a word in edgeways in a meeting that mostly consists of men, you aren’t alone.

It’s a situation that many women find themselves in at work. You have an idea that is relevant to the discussion, and you begin to speak — only to be interrupted or talked over by a male colleague. It’s frustrating and common.

The old adage is that women talk more than men, but that doesn’t hold true when it comes to work. There are scores of studies outlining the ways men dominate speaking in business-focused contexts, whether in morning meetings, conference calls, or academic seminars.

In 2017, Prattle studied more than 155,000 company conference calls over the past 19 years in research for Bloomberg, finding that men spoke 92% of the time. This is only partially explained by the dearth of women in executive roles — put frankly, it is also because men talk more.

“Male executives provide significantly more verbose answers to analyst questions than their female counterparts,” Prattle CEO Evan Schnidman told Bloomberg. “One could surmise that male executives are more prone to speaking simply to hear themselves speak.”

Another study, published in the American Political Science Review, found women speak 25% less than men on average in meetings where both men and women are present.

It’s not just about men speaking more than women — they’re also talking over them. A 2014 study found that both men and women are more likely to interrupt someone if they’re female.

It’s a problem that affects women in all professions, including politics. Victoria L. Brescoll, an associate professor of organisational behavior at the Yale School of Management, published a paper in 2012 showing that powerful male US Senators spoke more on the Senate floor, which was not the case for their female colleagues.

Likewise, speakers at academic seminars are mostly men. A 2017 study found that men made up a disproportionate majority of more than 3,000 colloquium speakers at 50 institutions in 2013 to 2014. This existed even when controlling for rank and representation of men and women in the disciplines that sponsored the events — the factors often cited to explain gender imbalances in academia.

There’s enough research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that the hushing of women’s voices in the workplace is a problem, but there’s no one answer for why this is the case.

One theory is that women are more reticent to speak up in meetings because they’re conscious of being judged. Research shows their fears are justified, as women are far more likely to be assessed on their voices and personalities than men.

In 2015, a study found that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% when they’re judged as being “forceful” or “assertive” — qualities often lauded among male CEOs. If women speak up with authority, they run the risk of being demonised as “bossy” or “aggressive.”

Another likely reason is that women are simply given the floor less, or are given fewer opportunities to speak up and be heard. This problem became all too apparent in 2017, when, at a women’s rights conference, the lone female physicist on a panel was ignored for an hour — then interrupted when she was finally given the microphone.

The impact of women’s voices being ignored is far-reaching, and can leave women demoralised, undermined, and unengaged. They may be brimming with new ideas, but risk being overlooked when it comes to promotions and career progression. Everyone wants to be recognised for doing a good job, but research has shown it takes being noticed to get ahead.

When we already have so few women in positions of power, and when workplaces rarely favour women, we should be doing all we can to make sure they are heard and valued.

There are ways employers can make sure all staff are given their fair share of airtime, however.

“If women feel they are regularly being interrupted or given less airtime that male colleagues, there may be wider cultural issues at work,” according to careers expert Felicity Dwyer, a member of the Life Coach Directory.

“The chair or facilitator could introduce a topic and then ask everyone to give their initial thoughts, and not allow any general discussion until everyone has had a chance to contribute,” Dwyer said. “The chair also has a role in setting an expectation that people won’t interrupt each other.

“It’s also important to use questions to invite a range of views, for example to ask if anyone has any different views to the one just put forward. This avoids the risk of narrow unrepresentative discussions and poor decision-making.”