Men: talk less, smile more to help fix equality deficit

Pretty sure I’ve discovered how to get rid of the gender pay gap.

Here’s why men get the big bucks and the bonuses. Michelle Ryan, director of Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, is blunt.

Men talk. A lot. “In all the ways they get attention, men take up space. They take credit for women’s achievements, it’s attention-seeking, look-at-me behaviour. And we don’t even notice men are taking up all the space – but it’s how we determine worth,” says Ryan.

Research from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reveals men get paid more than women across industry, role or age. When blokes say “show me the money”, we say “yes”.

Here’s what the research says about men and talking. Boys get the majority of attention in class, wrote scholars David and Myra Sadker and Karen Zittleman in 2009. Women in congressional hearings in the US are more likely to be interrupted than men, also in the High Court of Australia. Even the ABC’s panel show Q&A is not immune (anecdotally better when Virginia Trioli is in charge).

What does the research say about women and talking? Veteran linguistics researcher Deborah Tannen says they talk much less and police themselves much more, for fear of being seen as “too aggressive”. And let’s not even talk about what happens when men go out to dinner with their doting wives.

Only one way forward: change male behaviour. Maybe take the advice of Aaron Burr, antihero of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: talk less, smile more. It won’t be easy. But women are so sick of being told to change their behaviour that maybe it’s time for blokes to step up. Or, ahem, shoosh up.

Here’s what Diane Smith-Gander does. She’s been on more boards and had more senior appointments than I’ve had fancy dinners (and I love fancy dinners).

“I interrupt everyone. I am a serial interrupter. I can give a masterclass in it and actually do when I speak to young women. I tell them to learn the art of the elegant interruption or they will spend their life listening to men. I have to make a self-deprecating joke about it in mixed company to get away with it.”

Did she always?

Men get a bonus if they are slightly more talkative than the average person. Women are perceived to be incompetent when they talk “too much”.

“I think I always interrupted as I wanted to be heard, but it wasn’t until I was working with Ann Sherry at Westpac in my mid-30s I realised what was going on. Ann was working on killing off men co-opting women’s ideas.”

Despite Sherry’s heroic effort, that hasn’t quite died out. We are in solidarity with Punch cartoonist Riana Duncan’s Miss Triggs, whose boss commended her suggestion and said: “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” There’s a term for that: bropropriating.

One extremely, extremely senior woman I spoke to (swore-on-the-bible I wouldn’t name her) told me men line up to talk in meetings. A woman might get a word in, but men aren’t hearing her, instead are waiting to say their next important thing.

“Men aren’t active listeners,” she sighs.

So what about my idea of getting men to stop talking so much? She mocked me openly. “That’s never going to happen.”

Terms like mansplaining, manterrupting, bropropriating might trivialise and generalise to all men what is damaging behaviour. It’s true all men don’t behave this way. But enough do to stop the real change we need to get the best out of everyone and reward everyone equally.

I run my idea past Ginka Toegel, professor in leadership at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. On Zoom, she looks at me quizzically. Men get a bonus if they are slightly more talkative than the average person. Women are perceived to be incompetent when they talk “too much” particularly at their first managerial position.

“Men start talking when they start thinking.”

I run my genius idea to get men to talk less past the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Mary Wooldridge. Silence.

“As amusing as that would be, it wouldn’t work.”

The only thing that works is more women in the room, she says. Transparent pay data. Targets. Quotas.

Big societal shifts. It’s then norms will change. And maybe even Norm.

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