Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do women really speak more than men? Not so much.


(Editor's note: I just took a poll on Facebook, asking who speaks more in the course of a day--men, women, or neither--that is, they both speak about the same number of words.. Just one respondent knew the right answer, that both genders speak about the same number of words. Most respondents, men and women, thought women speak more words than men. So I think it's time to re-run this piece on the durable myths about women and speaking.)

You've heard them. You may have even repeated them and believed them. But it's time to slay these 4 myths about women and public speaking. They're not only falsehoods you shouldn't repeat, they're a way to discourage women from speaking up in public -- probably the reason they came into use in the first place.
  1. Women talk more than men do.  This one has been used for years to embarrass women into silence. Reserchers note that the gap's been described as huge, with some estimates saying that women speak 20,000 words a day but men speak just 7,000. But research shows that women and men speak about the same number of words every day, on average: 16,000.  The difference? Men prefer to use "report talk" and speak publicly; women prefer "rapport talk" that builds relationships and is mainly one-on-one, according to linguist Deborah Tannen.
  2. We can't find any women qualified to be speakers (or, we only want the best speakers).  Cancer researcher and university administrator Elizabeth Travis notes that this is one way women are challenged and put on the defensive in program committee meetings.  It's not a numbers issue:  Even in professions where women dominate, they often are still in the minority as speakers on professional society conference programs, research shows.  Historically, efforts to keep women from speaking in public were blatant and noticeable; today, it may have gone underground, but it's still a barrier.
  3. Women get ignored in meetings because they aren't as good at men at speaking up.  In fact, women can be just as effective as men in communicating, yet their points are more frequently ignored--or claimed by others as their own. When they speak up, women are viewed negatively. From a book that offers an exhaustive study of men's and women's behavior and language in meetings: "Study after study has found that, when other variables are controlled (education, expertise, etc.), women are responded to more negatively than men as measured by facial expression, gaze behavior, individual evaluations, and decision reached in task-based groups."  In this case, the myth belies an underlying attitude that's tough to shake.  Some research on how women leaders are perceived suggests that women can be competent or likeable, but not both.
  4. It's women's speaking style that sets them back--they're too emotional and not tough enough.  This myth has pushed many women in public life into mimicking a traditional male style of speaking: louder, more forceful, less emotional.  In fact, what rhetoric refers to as the "effeminate" speaking style is the one successfully employed by the U.S. presidents considered to be among the best speakers:  Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  But, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out, women's natural speaking style is a double-edge sword. She writes that "only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak." So as long as women are discredited as speakers, they'll ironically have a tougher time succeeding with the style that comes naturally to them.
I hope you'll start countering these myths when you see or hear them--it's a step we all can take to level the playing field for all speakers.

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