This is Doug, and I’m going to be flying the airplane in this post. Pam is standing by me, as usual contributing a wealth of valuable and timely information, but she’s going to hold her tongue. Why? Because research proves the likelihood that if she tried to make her ideas heard, she would learn the perils of “speaking while female,” as researcher Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant put it in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. The odds are that Pam would either be manterrupted, mansplained and bropropiated. If she held her ground and insisted on air time she would likely be labeled as “difficult” or “aggressive.” Either way, in the battle for leverage among powerful players, all too often women end up as losers.
On the other hand, as a guy, my provocations are more likely to earn full faith and credit from the professional power elite, just because I said ‘em.
Whazzat You Say?
“Manterruption,” “mansplaining” and “bropropriation” are neologisms that spell bad news both for women trying to make the most of their seat at the table and for men claiming to be equal opportunity communicators. All these terms represent characteristics of male communication – whether intentional or the result of unconscious biases and attitudes – used as displays of dominance and power:
- Manterrupting: When a man interrupts a woman frequently and unnecessarily.
- Intrusive Interrupting: When a person intentionally or unintentionally usurps a speakers’ turn at talk in order to derail their ability to complete their thought and make their point.
- Mansplaining: When a man interrupts a woman to explain something to her she knows more about than he does, often including putting a “manly” spin on a “soft” or feminine mode of expression.
- Bropropriating: When a man usurps a woman’s idea – often with the support of other men — and takes credit for it.
This new vocabulary is deliberately sarcastic, not simply to provoke confrontation, but to highlight the frustration that interruptive behavior causes competent, creative and articulate women. Through these terms, women are trying to sound a wake-up call. Can men listen? Can they change?
As Dr. Arin Reeves, author of One Size Never Fits All (ABA 2014), puts it, “We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in the workplace without exploring what happens when women are constantly interrupted. If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?” A female senior partner at a large law firm put a blunter point on it: “Men’s communication styles are killing women’s careers.”
Of course, not all interruption is disruptive or destructive. Interruption can facilitate communication by helping to clarify (“Oh, I get it! You mean…”), amplify (“Yeah, yeah, yeah, and furthermore…”) or ratify (“Right! Right!). Linguists speak of “back-channel listening responses” and “affiliative overlaps.” But a growing body of empirical research shows that men are more likely to interrupt to make their opinions heard, and women are more likely to interrupt to ask questions and seek clarification.
But let’s be clear: manterrupting is about power-tripping, marginalizing, demeaning or dismissing. It turns collaboration into competition – competition in which women are put at peril. “We’ve seen it happen again and again,” Sandberg and Grant write. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard, or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation of his fine idea.”
A variety of research shows that when it comes to workplace communication, women speak less, are interrupted more, and have their ideas criticized and nit-picked more than men. Male executives who speak more often than their peers are considered more competent (by 10%), while female executives who speak up are considered less so (14% less, in fact, according to research by Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll).
Recent research by Dr. Reeves probed the question: Is there a gender difference in meetings, conferences and/or panel discussions…especially at the higher visibility leadership levels, in who is interrupted more, who interrupts more, who is more likely to interrupt whom, who is more likely to realize the interruption behaviors, and how interruptions are perceived and managed?
The answer? Oh, yeah. For example, in 2014, empirical linguist Kieran Snyder observed interactions in meetings where at least four people were communicating. She found that men interrupted at twice the rate than women did and were three times more likely to interrupt women as to interrupt other men (and when women did interrupt, they interrupted other women 87% of the time).
Reeves listened to 41 hours of meetings, calls and panels where at least two women were communicating in a group of at least five people. She noted 859 interruptions, an average of almost 30 per group interaction. 582 of the interruptions were by men, and men proved far more likely to interrupt women than men. “An overwhelming majority (89+%) of men’s interruptions of women were intrusive, but only 42% of men’s interruptions of men were intrusive. Less than 20% of women’s interruptions of men or women were intrusive.”
Interestingly, Reeves notes that when a powerful woman is formally in charge of a meeting, she will tend to circle back to a manterrupted woman and place the microphone back in her hands. On the other hand, if a man is in charge of the meeting, interruptions of women are not only tolerated, they are perpetuated: the interrupted woman is seldom given a second chance to complete her thought. Sadly, women who attempt self-help by asserting their right to be heard often are “spoken to after the meeting” and warned that they are perceived as being “difficult” or “not team players.”
In addition, researchers find that when men grab the mike from women, they don’t give it back: the interruption becomes a usurpation of power, not simply a status gesture. They tend to keep the floor, spin the communication toward mansplanation, or cede the floor to other men. Once women are interrupted, they stay interrupted. Any wonder that they are frustrated?
Oh, Not Me
Right now, a lot of you men are pleading innocent. To paraphrase the wonderful and repeated punch line from the long-running stage show Defending the Caveman, you are screaming out, “I am not an asshole!”
It may be that you do not consciously intend to be an asshole, but the evidence shows that the impact of your behavior is indistinguishable from if it were intentional. Reeves interviewed both men and women who had participated in the meetings, calls and plenaries she observed, and most of the men reported being unaware either of interrupting anyone or having been interrupted. Most of their interruptions were not conscious or deliberate.
Most likely, this obliviousness – if not outright denial – stems from unconscious biases about the relative power and authority of men and women, as well as about the competitive substrate that underpins much of professional and executive existence. In an incident that went gleefully viral (at least from the perspective of those who love to see the mighty brought low), Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson appeared at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival to discuss how to attract, develop and advance more women in the technology sector. The two men repeatedly interrupted co-panelist Megan Smith, the Chief Technology Officer for the United States (and a former Google executive) as she tried to talk about the need for women to have a greater voice in technology.
In the audience Q&A, Judith Williams, head of Google’s global diversity and talent management program, asked, “Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men, I’m wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times.” The audience burst into applause.
Megan Smith’s answer? “It’s an interesting thing, unconscious bias. It’s something we all have and something we really have to debug.”
Neither Schmidt nor Isaacson answered the question.
Next Post: Is there a cure for manterruption?
© 2015, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.