Part I-The Problem
First, know that you are not alone. Studies have shown that men interrupt women in any business setting 33% more often than they interrupt each other.
To make matters worse, if a man speaks over a woman while she is presenting an idea, the idea is either dismissed or, if it is a good one, hijacked by the man who then takes credit for it. This happens all the time, proving once again that the psychology of stereotypical gender roles – men as leaders and women as followers – is alive and thriving in the modern-day workplace.
Interruptions don’t just happen to us in meetings, brainstorming sessions and other forums where ideas are shared and challenged. It happens to women US Supreme Court Justices, women superstars and the most influential women politicians of our time. Good old-fashioned sexism expressed in gendered socialization, and a default cultural preference for institutionalized male domination, applies to all aspects of public life.
Consider this: A new study Justice, Interrupted: The Effect of Gender, Ideology and Seniority at Supreme Court Oral Arguments* found that as more female justices are added to the Supreme Court, the number of times the male justices interrupted the female justices increased. And amazingly: as more female justices are added, even the male lawyers arguing cases before the Court increased their interruptions of the female justices. The study found a consistently gendered pattern: In 1990, with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the court, 35.7% of interruptions were directed at her; In 2002, 45.3% were directed at Justices O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and in 2015, 65.9% of all interruptions on the court were directed at Justices Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan on the bench.
Most importantly, these interruptions are preventing female justices from having a larger impact on decision making and instead, using valuable time debating with their colleagues. “Oral arguments shape case outcomes,” write Jacobi and Schweers. “This pattern of gender disparity in interruptions could create a marked difference in the relative degree of influence between the male and female justices.”
Now consider this: In an extraordinarily rare move, on February 7, 2017 Majority Leader Mitch McConnell interrupted Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech in a near-empty chamber, as debate on Sessions’ nomination for US Attorney General headed toward an evening vote. McConnell stated that Warren breached Senate rules by reading past statements against Sessions from figures such as the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the late Coretta Scott King. The mechanism used to silence Warren is known as Rule 19, an arcane and seldom invoked provision in the rules of the Senate.
Historians could only find two previous instances of Rule 19’s use, once in 1902 and once in 1979. Warren was taken aback and said she was “surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.” When she asked to continue her remarks, Mr. McConnell objected.
“Objection is heard,” said Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, who was presiding over the chamber at the time. “The senator will take her seat.”
During the first presidential debate of the general election season, Republican Donald Trump interrupted Democrat Hillary Clinton 51 times. In comparison, Clinton interrupted Trump only 17 times. Trump interrupted Clinton three times as much as she interrupted him. (That same 33% as when women are interrupted in business meetings.)
Finally, consider this: in 2009, during the MTV Video Music Awards as Taylor Swift was accepting her award for Best Female Video, Kanye West lunged onto the stage, grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift, and launched into a monolog. “I’m gonna let you finish,” he said as he interrupted Swift, “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”
Rare is the woman who hasn’t experienced similar humiliation, but we usually don’t experience it on national television, in the US Supreme Court or on the floor of the US Senate. None of these women are the type to cave easily, nor suffer the self-consciousness many women would feel in these situations. Given all of these women’s accomplishments in life and despite being used to public confrontation, men were still able to talk these women down. It can happen to any of us and is not going away. So what do we do?
See my next Blog for how to prevent this from happening to you, and be sure to make your own suggestions in the comments below! (Your advice might even make an appearance!)
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*Virginia Law Review, Forthcoming; Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 17-03:Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers, 4/6/17
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