• US scientists found that quantity, rather than quality, of talking determines who is perceived as a leader in small groups.
  • The ‘babble hypothesis’ was tested on university students working together on a task.
  • Men on average received one more vote than women, confirming the continuing gender gap in leadership roles.

If you want to be a leader, start talking. It doesn’t even particularly matter what you say, according to a study testing the appropriately-named “babble hypothesis”.

US scientists found that quantity, rather than quality, of speaking determined who was perceived as a leader in small groups, according to research published in The Leadership Quarterly.

This effect also appears to happen regardless of the intelligence or personality traits of members within the group, it added. Gender, however, does make a difference to perceived leadership qualities.

‘Babble hypothesis’ tested among students

The research saw 33 groups of four to 10 university students work together on either a military- or business-themed simulation game.

The participants were given 10 minutes to plan their task and an hour to carry it out.

Each of the students had to nominate one to five individuals they thought had emerged as leaders – once after the planning phase and again after the gameplay.

Those who talked more nominated as leaders

Researchers found that participants who spent more time talking were more likely to be nominated as leaders – regardless of operator status, previous gameplay knowledge and variables such as personality traits and cognitive ability.

“We usually think of leadership as being very content-driven – someone says important things, so we follow them – yet here was pretty consistent evidence that people seemed to attribute leadership to people who ‘babbled’, or just spoke a lot,” lead author Neil G MacLaren told PsyPost.org.

“I think one take away is the importance of speaking up in group settings. For example, if you are in a leadership position the evidence suggests you should play an active role in the conversation,” he added.

Gender impacted leadership attribution

Another key finding was that gender had a clear impact on leadership attribution, the study showed.

On average, men received an extra vote, simply because of their gender, and the effect was shown to be more extreme for the individual with the most votes.

“This bias does not appear to be strongly associated with any observable indicators of participation quality,” said MacLaren.

“Although the information about leadership attributions we gather in the lab can seem somewhat contrived, it’s important to remember that many of us provide attributions of others regularly in the form of performance evaluations at work or in hiring decisions.”

a chart showing the Share of female held leadership positions in FTSE companies in the United Kingdom in 2020
The gender gap still an issue in the workplace.
Image: Statista

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Gender gap still an issue in the workplace

These US findings reflect those of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.

While the gender gap in Educational Attainment and Health and Survival are nearly closed, more work needs to be done when it comes to Economic Participation and Opportunity.

The report estimated that only 58% of the gap in Economic Participation and Opportunity has been closed so far, adding that it expects it to take another 267.6 years for this to happen.

Women, meanwhile, only represented 27% of all manager positions and overall income disparities are still only part-way towards being bridged, it added.

The data also showed a persistent decline in the share of women being hired into senior management positions.