What Uber's board member got wrong about men and women

Uber's problems with a sexist work environment deepened this week when a board member made a disparaging comment about women in leadership roles -- at a staff meeting to discuss the embattled company's work culture.

Uber's only female board member, Arianna Huffington, talked about why companies need more women on their boards -- because, she said, "when there's one woman on the board, it's much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board." David Bonderman replied, "Actually, what it shows is that it's much more likely to be more talking" when women join a board.

Attendees at the meeting where he made the comment were reportedly angered and sent complaints to their managers. Soon afterwards, the 74-year-old Bonderman, founder of the private equity firm TPG Capital, resigned and issued a statement that said the comment was inappropriate and careless.

Bonderman's jibe wasn't only careless. Studies demonstrate his belief about chatty women is far off the mark. 

The idea that women are talkers who barely let men get a word in edgewise is deeply rooted in societal stereotypes, yet research that analyzes how men and women actually converse has again and again demonstrated the belief to be false. These studies find men and women engaging in conversations either have relatively equal exchanges or that men dominate. 

If that's the case, why do people like Bonderman continue to hold the belief that women dominate? One early paper on gender roles and conversation pointed to "perceptual effects" from social roles and attitudes that lead to misjudgments about the rate of speech between genders. 

In other words, traditional gender roles hold that men should be in leadership positions. When women speak, it's considered unusual and may be perceived as taking up more of the conversation than it actually does. 

On top of that, men are more likely to interrupt women than other men, which undercuts women during workplace discussions. One study from linguist Kieran Snyder found that men account for two-thirds of all interruptions and that men interrupted twice as often as women. More startling, men were about three times as likely to butt into a woman's comment as they were a man's. 

"Whenever women take a speaking turn, they are getting interrupted," she wrote in Slate.

It's not only men who interrupt women, however. Snyder found that women also do it, but women hardly interrupt men. 

Male-pattern boldness in dialogue has become enshrined in the phrase "mansplaining," the term that picked up steam after feminist author Rebecca Solnit described the phenomenon in "Men Explain Things to Me." (Her example was how a man at a party explained her own book to her.)

Huffington is right that gender diversity has real-world dividends. Companies with women on their boards have outearned those with only men by 3.5 percent on a compound annual basis since 2005. Businesses in which women hold the majority of top leadership roles have better sales growth, higher cash flow returns on investment and less leverage. 

American companies are far from the vanguard on equal representation at the top of the corporate hierarchy. Women make up only 16.6 percent of U.S. corporate  boards. Even if women talked more than men -- which isn't the case -- they have a long way to go before they have equal time in the conversation.