Brescoll (2011). Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations

Victoria Brescoll – Yale School of Management

Karyn Dossinger – Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota
Daniel Newton – W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University

Article link:

Question 1. What motivated your interest in this topic? What made you curious about volubility as a specific workplace behavior where gender and power may play a role?

I became interested in workplace volubility (i.e., talking behavior) because of curious things that I had noticed about how power seemed to affect men and women differently when I was working as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate. Specifically, I noticed that male and female Senators who seemed to be the most influential didn’t give the same kinds of “stump speeches.” For example, even the most powerful women Senators oftentimes told a narrative about how they became involved in politics that made it seem like they were not in politics for the sake of getting power, but rather to help people somehow, but really powerful male Senators almost never had this same kind of personal narrative. Related to this, I noticed that these same very powerful female Senators oftentimes didn’t come to the Senate floor to speak at every opportunity, unlike their male counterparts.

Question 2. Your research shows that powerful women refrain from speaking up because they fear negative consequences such as backlash. We were interested in any insights you may have into the psychological antecedents of these perceptions of potential backlash – is it driven by a lack of psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999)? Are there other factors?

I’ve primarily thought about fear of backlash as similar to other kinds of psychological constructs, such as stereotype threat, that are based in the fact that stereotypes of social groups are so ubiquitous and powerful that they can affect people who are the targets of these stereotypes in profound ways. In my work I show that even women who are in powerful positions may end up not exercising that power (by “taking the floor”) because they (accurately) perceive that they may be negatively evaluated by others for appearing “too dominant.”

That said, I think it’s the case that everyone at work—males and females—has a strong need to feel both secure in their position and also safe. So I find the idea that fearing negative consequences for gender stereotype-incongruent behavior (i.e., backlash) is rooted in a desire for psychological safety very interesting (and perhaps something that should be examined in future research!).

Question 3. It seems that a crucial component of speaking up is also the person (or group of people) who is listening. How much of volubility depends on the audience? If individuals – men or women – view their audience as unreceptive to their message, isn’t it likely they will view their speaking up efforts as futile? How much then does futility influence how women speak up, especially to audiences that are primarily comprised of men?

Great question! I think both men and women’s willingness to speak up at work depends a lot on how they believe they will be perceived for doing so. In a series of studies on backlash effects for volubility in the workplace and in politics, I have found that people not only dislike a powerful woman who talks a lot, but they are also less willing to hire, promote, and vote for a highly-voluble woman compared to an equally-talkative man. What is also interesting about this is that women were just as likely as men to penalize highly-voluble powerful women, suggesting that it might not be the case that audiences comprised mainly of men are more likely to be unreceptive to highly-voluble women. (The fact that women are just as likely as men to exhibit backlash effects against women who violate gender stereotypes is oftentimes surprising to people, but research on backlash effects over the last 15 years has consistently shown to be the case.) So, in short, I think that women’s perceptions that speaking up may be “futile” is likely part of what “fear of backlash” for being highly voluble is all about. If others are perceiving you as “too dominant” and dislike you as a result, you are likely to also believe that they won’t be receptive to whatever it is you’re trying to communicate in the first place.

Question 4. The topic of gender, volubility and power has clear practical implications for both women and men and how they present themselves in work settings. Based on your findings that power seems to work differently for men and women, what do you think are some strategies that women could use to offset some of the difficulties they may face when using power in their careers? For example, at the end of the paper you mention Hillary Clinton’s listening tour during her Senate campaign. Would you give her similar advice today for her presidential campaign?

I don’t think I’m in a position to give advice to Hillary Clinton about talking behavior because I think she’s incredibly skilled at reading an audience and making astute decisions about how to communicate with them. (I used to work for her when she was the junior senator from New York so I feel comfortable saying that!)

In general, though, I think that women (like Clinton) who are good at self-monitoring probably are already good at figuring out when to talk and when not to talk as they not only sensitive to social cues but they are also motivated to listen to these cues and modify their behavior accordingly. These are the women who are also pretty good at avoiding backlash effects in the workplace—they can walk the narrow tightrope between being perceived as both agentic (but not domineering) and warm (but not weak). I think women who aren’t as good at self-monitoring may want to pay attention to the fact that once they become the boss (or get power in some way), people may not treat them in the same way that men with power get treated. In other words, having power may license a greater range of behaviors, but this range may, in general, be slightly bigger for men than it is for women. Women in this situation would be smart to get the perspective of trusted friends and colleagues to help them navigate these situations.

Question 5. This study has received a lot of attention in the media since it was published in ASQ in 2011 (e.g., Fast Company, Business Insider). When a journalist wants to cite your work, how do you ensure that it’s described appropriately and accurately in these outlets? What advice do you have for how to build a presence for your research in the popular media? As doctoral students, we think most of us are quite focused just on getting our work published in an academic journal. As we progress in our careers, however, we’ll likely have opportunities to share our work with a broader audience, and navigating that process will be a new experience for many of us. Any insights you could share here would be greatly appreciated

Besides this paper in ASQ, I’ve been really fortunate to have a few of the things I’ve researched get picked up by the media, but I have really struggled with trying to find ways to make sure my work is described accurately. But more than that, I’ve had problems with the kinds of implications that reporters (and others) will derive from my work. For example, with this paper on volubility, a number of newspaper stories came out in Asia saying that (basically) that “Yale research shows that women shouldn’t talk at work.” And that certainly was not what I found nor was I making that prescription! So what I try to do (although I’m not sure if I’ve been successful) is anticipate the kind of “take away” or prescription that reporters will want to make as a result of my research and then have a careful response about what I think the take-away should be (as it is almost never the same as what they want to say). I’m not sure how successful this strategy has been, but at the very least I’m not taken off-guard when I take a cold call from a reporter with no response to this kind of question.

As far as building a presence with the media goes, I don’t have any specific strategic advice except to say that it’s probably a good idea to have your papers available for download on your professional website. That way if a reporter is writing a story on something related to your research it will be much easier for them to find your work. Reporters are very much pressed for time, working on really short deadlines so anything you can do to facilitate them accessing your work probably increases the chances that you will be contacted or cited.

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