WOMEN
07/31/2014 02:58 pm ET

Women Don't Talk More Than Men, They're Just More Likely To Collaborate, Study Finds

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In a world full of "Chatty Cathys" and "Mansplainers," which gender really talks more?

Whomever you think is more talkative, there's probably a study to back you up. Women have long been assumed the more talkative sex, but some studies indicate that men may be the bigger talkers while others found no difference between the sexes.

Apparently, it's all about context. Women don't necessarily talk more than men -- they're just more likely to. We'll explain.

Researchers from Northeastern University observed two contrasting professional environments to see how each gender's propensity to talk may vary by setting. Published in the July issue of Scientific Reports, the study's findings indicate that women talk more than men in collaborative, task-based settings -- and mostly to each other. In more individualized, unstructured settings, there was no difference between how much men and women talked.

Led by Professor Jukka-Pekka Onnela, now a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health, researchers created two separate settings to analyze speaking behavior. In the first setting, researchers assigned a project to male and female graduate students, which they would complete individually but were free to discuss with one another over the course of 12 hours. In the second setting, researchers observed male and female employees at a call center during 12 one-hour lunch breaks.

Among the graduate students in the collaborative setting, women were "significantly more talkative than men," according to the study. Women were also more likely to be "physically proximate" to other women in small groups. In the lunch hour setting, during which their was no task to complete or particular incentive to talk, there were no "gender-based differences" in talkativeness.

In each experiment, participants wore small devices called "sociometers," which tracked speech and gauged proximity to others. Participants were aware of the specific data the devices would collect, and indeed, "the act of measuring often changes what is being measured, at least some some extent," Professor Jukka-Pekka Onnela told HuffPost. But in using relatively unobtrusive recording devices, the study attempts to establish a more objective observation environment than past studies on talking.

Conducting surveys and asking individuals to accurately convey how much they talk leaves huge margins for reporting bias, as do direct observation lab environments in which individuals are more likely to alter their behavior when researchers are present. Using less conspicuous tracking methods should "lead to lesser behavioral modifications than using other humans to watch and record the details of each social interaction," Onnela said.

Being "talkative" can have gendered associations. Under observation, men and women may adjust their behavior to stay within -- or appear exempt from -- societal expectations. The presence of a researcher "may heighten people's self-consciousness and concerns with appearing in socially desirable ways, which for some people could include acting in gender-typed ways," the study explains. On the other hand, "social desirability may lead to the opposite effect." For example, men might make an effort to collaborate more in the presence of a researcher than they would ordinarily.

To be sure, social conditioning probably informs men's and women's behavior whether researchers are present or not. But the Northeastern researchers hoped tracking individuals' behavior in a relatively normal environment would produce more precise data on talkativeness than conducting a survey or a lab test.

That women were more likely to collaborate is consistent with prior research suggesting women have a more interactive learning style, while men are more likely to approach tasks individually. So is there anything in particular about women that makes them "talk more," or are they just more inclined to the type of collaboration that requires them to? Given that gender disparities "completely disappear in unstructured non-task-oriented context," are talking studies just that -- all talk?

Not necessarily. Because in itself, "talking" -- how much and to whom -- matters. Surveys show that employees value transparency and collaboration in their leaders -- qualities female leaders are more likely to have, according to a global survey. Other studies, however, suggest that women are perceived less favorably than men when they speak up.

If "task-based" environments encourage the type of collaboration we like, but the talking we don't, what's a girl to do? The study did not assess talking behavior in high-level professional environments, but its findings are useful to consider in the context of women's mobility and perception in the workplace. Considering how gender may influence communication style in certain environments could help organizations arrange management teams more effectively.

For organizations making an effort to diversify their upper ranks, recognizing that women's propensity to collaborate with other women "could pose challenges for their promotion in organizations with predominantly male executives," as the study suggests, may allow for a more thoughtful approach to promotions and team-building.

Beyond diversity for its own sake, collaboration among diverse groups tends to enhance performance. The case for "understanding the role of interaction context in the expression or suppression of gender-related diversity" is pretty strong, the Northeastern study concludes.

So can women talk their way into the corner office? Maybe, but only if people are listening.

HuffPost

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