Do women self-censor more than men?

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Self-censorship means stopping yourself from saying or doing something without overt pressure from any outside force. The term was originally coined in the context of freedom of expression or freedom of speech, particularly in the press, and is starting to crop up in conversations about career paths, often to a wearying extent in theories about what creates the glass ceiling.

Do women self-censor more than men? If they do, why? Is it really one of the most difficult workplace equality issues to tackle? And if so, what is the answer? The EVE webmagazine team takes a closer look.

Women say they are more likely to self-censor than men

It’s fairly common to hear that women self-censor more than men. But it’s actually not proven fact: few studies have been able to provide full scientific evidence for the observation. But the data we have does suggest there is some truth in it.

A PWN study in 2018 indicated that 88% of women have set themselves ambitions, but 77% see those ambitions as “taboo”: they are very eager to achieve something (in this case, professional success) but feel uncomfortable with the idea of telling people about it, and putting themselves in a position to make it happen.

The 2017 Hays report on diversity states that 58% of women, compared with 63% of men, say they are using their skills, and sharing their intention to move ahead in their professional field. This backs up the hypothesis that women self-censor more than men but also undermines the perception that there is a very large gap in self-censorship between men and women. The finding also suggests that women are more likely to talk about self-censorship than men (especially because they are asked about self-censorship more often than their male peers).

What about men? Are they self-censoring their self-censorship?

Further research goes against the idea that self-censorship is only for women. For example, the study by Carnegie Mellon University on the self-censorship mechanisms of Facebook users, driven by data on last-minute decisions not to publish content and on immediately deleted published content, is actually quite surprising. Men are almost three times as likely (33% compared to 13%) as women to self-censor on Facebook.

Their self-censorship reflex is even more powerful when they have a large community of followers, and even more so if that community is mostly made up of men!

So men self-censor too… And perhaps even more than women when it comes to recognizing that they daren’t speak or take action. Male stereotypes don’t self-censor, and they admit to self-censorship even less.

Self-censorship is closely related to social norms

The Carnegie Mellon study confirms that self-censorship is not a psychological weakness caused by a lack of self-confidence. It is rooted in normal human interaction.

And countless psychosociological studies have highlighted that fact for more than half a century. In 1951, the researcher Solomon Asch wanted to study circumstances in which individuals were forced to say something that went against what they really thought, to the point where they had to contradict the evidence that was right in front of them. So he brought together a group of “naïve” volunteers, among whom he placed a few “accomplices” who would talk with authority, speaking first and giving a wrong answer to an extremely simple question. The rest of the group then aligned themselves with the first speaker’s opinion, despite what they knew to be common sense.

After Asch’s study, one of his former students, Stanley Milgram, performed an unforgettable experiment: individuals were encouraged by a figure of scientific authority to behave like torturers! Two forces were at work: submission to expert authority, and peer pressure. Although the participants might have disagreed with the idea of sadistically electrocuting another human being and allowing such cruelty to continue, the individuals weren’t actually brave enough to express their disapproval or act independently; they didn’t challenge what they had been told to do.

Milgram’s experiment proves that this issue isn’t about gender: the women in his experiment acted no more and no less vindictively than the men. So there is no female or male essence about self-censorship or free will: when a rule is set, everyone grapples with the fear of subverting authority and what the consequences of that subversion may be.

The influence of gender norms on self-censorship mechanisms

Once we understand that self-censorship is closely related to the influence of gender norms, what effects are there on freedom of speech or action in terms of the social expectations for women and men? As the Carnegie Mellon study showed, men are more self-conscious when they are surrounded by other men. Fan & Quian’s work, which found that the feeling of safety and well-being in a professional setting depends on the amount of diversity in the workplace, also showed that women have more self-censorship reflexes and feel a greater need to prove themselves when they are in male-dominated environments. On the other hand, environments that are predominantly female lend themselves better to people feeling  confident when speaking or taking initiatives, and that applies to both women and men.

These findings question the benefits of “traditionally” masculine norms (which can be apparent in the behavior of both men and women, when the behavior is likened to the repulsive “queen bee” figure). “The ideology of virility”, as the philosopher Olivia Gazalé calls the set of beliefs about the male ideal,  permeates how are society is organized and how cultural values are formed, which encourages everyone to self-censor.

How does self-censorship affect the lives and careers of women and men?

If self-censorship isn’t restricted to gender, does it have the same effect on careers and life experiences for women and men?

The fact that it flies in the face of social norms, and in particular with the imprint left by a set of masculine stereotypes, obviously suggests that women pay a higher socio-professional price for their self-censorship. In any case, it is a very popular way of explaining the glass ceiling: women don’t ask (for positions of responsibility, pay rises, promotions, mobility, etc.) so they don’t receive; they don’t share their ambitions, they don’t want to demand what they are worth (even though several studies, from the one carried out by Patrick Scharnitzky – a speaker at EVE – and Inès Dauvergne for IMS in 2012, right up the 2017 Financi’Elles survey and the PWN study in 2018 showed that they do actually have confidence in their skills), and as a result they go unnoticed. This also happens because women are faced with paradoxical situations (e.g. they are assigned to conventional leadership positions while being promised new leadership codes), so they avoid the spotlight, preferring to be the number two and work in the shadows.

Meanwhile, as women self-censor they inadvertently slow down their own career development. When men self-censor it has more of an effect on the work-life balance. The 2016 UNAF survey on fatherhood in the 21st century shows that 53% of fathers would like to spend more time with their children and three-quarters of them say they have a heavy workload that forces them to stay for hours at the office, enduring long commutes (which the ONS 2018 study on the commuting gap showed are usually longer for men than for women), and a heavy “mental load” of professional responsibilities (that statistically more men exercise than women, they represent more than 75% of senior managers and nearly 90% of all managers). But do men dare talk to their employers about what their investment in family life really involves? Do they dare ask for flexibility to take care of the trivial, menial tasks and strict schedules, as well as all the other socially unacknowledged demands of ordinary family care?

The sociologist Alban Jacquemart, who wrote his thesis on human commitment to equality, believes that there is some ambiguity in this case: even though it has become easier for men to express their desire to be good fathers as well as good managers, this desire is not completely fulfilled, partly because our culture prevents men from playing active roles in areas that are usually women’s territory, but partly because of unexpressed avoidance tactics. Do men blame stereotypes, social norms and self-censorship a little too quickly and easily just to dodge playing an equal role in household chores?

Changes in family models, and with them representations of parenthood that make it easier for women to develop professionally, could however throw everything out of balance: men will soon have no choice but to express a need for better work-life balance in addition to professional accomplishment.

Could the culture of inclusion be a way of rejecting the culture of self-censorship?

The prediction that personal lives and professional experiences are set to merge together for both women and men, suggests that the culture of inclusion has a bright future. This culture, which encourages diversity, allows each person to be their true selves, and brings out the best in people, is undeniably nurtured by empathy, sharing of experiences and concerns, and pooling of ideas and energies, so that the rules of the game can be changed. Perhaps we can put an end once and for all to presenteeism, rethink career paths so that everyone has a place in the world of work at every stage in life, and can access genuine opportunities to promote and develop their talents. As such, the fight against self-censorship is a driver for inclusion (amplifying the voices of those we don’t usually hear) and also works as its fuel (boosting the variety of suggestions as to how businesses can be transformed).

How to fight against self-censorship: give yourself the power to say and do, to be heard and accepted

Self-censorship lies at the crossroads of three internalized and interconnected fears. These fears are related to individual development and environmental transformation:

  • The fear of not being able to say/do something (as though there is a lack of space to speak, fear of not being able to express yourself clearly, anticipation of formal or symbolic sanctions in case of “errors”, etc.)

When individuals experience this fear of not being able to say/do something, they should be trained on how to identify their needs and aspirations precisely, and how to speak in public… But they also need to work on the “rules of the game” during opportunities to speak (interviews, meetings, etc.) so that everyone can express themselves fully.

  • The fear of not being heard or being misunderstood (premature discouragement to speak if it seems that no-one is listening or take initiatives if the framework isn’t agile enough to deal with those initiatives, afraid of upsetting the apple cart, creating an argument or even causing harm.)

In this case, people should be trained to show more empathy, to listen actively, to engage in healthy conflict… but also to create and foster safe environments where the right to error is guaranteed.

  • The fear of not being accepted (feeling of not being good enough, fear of being a caricature, under qualified, stigmatized, etc.)

Here, individuals need to express their own personalities, with well-pitched assertiveness… But organizations and society as a whole also need to do more to step up their support for those who don’t conform to norms, and be more open to new ideas.

Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.