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Interrupting The Double Bind

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Men interrupt 33 percent more often when they speak with women than when they speak with other men. -study from George Washington University

A Seat At The Table Does Not Mean Having A Voice

Being interrupted, talked over, shut down or plagiarized is a ubiquitous experience for women, especially when they are outnumbered by men. It's a vicious double bind: women are systematically considered less authoritative which lowers their influence. So they speak up less. When they do speak up, they are not being listened to and are being interrupted more. Further when they are persistent or complain, they are disliked and negatively labelled.

Instead of avoidance, understand where the bias is coming from and the true intentions of the interrupters. Plan ahead. Beyond the opposing options of being silent or taking the double bind head on, there is a middle way where you can preempt and prepare for the interruptions. This puts you calmly, assertively in control so that you are heard.

It's Society's Fault

BYU political-science professor Jessica R. Preece says rather than outright misogyny, it’s usually cultural norms and gendered messages that subtly—and profoundly—shape the rules of engagement. Individuals who suppress female speech may do so unwittingly. But as a society we have been “slowly socialized over years to discount” female expertise and perspectives.

The renown linguist Professor Robin Lakoff of Berkeley suggested that gender differences in communication are explained by the different roles that men and women hold in society. According to Lakoff, “men communicate in an assertive manner because they occupy the dominant position in the social hierarchy”. In contrast, she suggests that women communicate in a more tentative and polite manner because they occupy the subordinate position in the social hierarchy.” She proposes that women’s speech differs from men’s in a number of ways including women’s propensity to:

  • Hedge:  "sort of", "kind of", "it seems like"

  • Use empty adjectives: "divine", "adorable", "gorgeous"

  • Use super-polite forms: "Would you mind..." "...if it's not too much to ask" "Is it okay if...?"

  • Apologize more: "I'm sorry, but I think that...

It's Not About Competency

Who gets interrupted and why? You might be tempted to think that professional competency plays a role in the dynamic around interruptions.

The research done by Jacobi and Schweers shattered the notion that competent people interrupt those less competent. Their research examined 15 years of U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments and showed that male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. Stunningly, they also found that as the number of female justices has increased, the reaction of their male peers has been to increase their interruptions of the female justices. Between 2004 and 2012, a time during which women made up, on average, 24% of the bench, 32% of interruptions were of the female justices, but only 4% were by the female justices.

Not All Interruptions Are Alike

Who interrupts and why? It can be helpful to understand the motivation and the intent of the interrupter before getting defensive or jumping to conclusions.

Neutral interruptions are things like interjections by the listener that seek to repair, repeat, or clarify something the speaker just said. During this type of interruption, the interrupter does not intend to exert power over the speaker, or to establish rapport with the speaker.

A rapport interruption is designed to display mutuality and generally conveys the impression that the interrupter understands and empathizes with the speaker and/or the content of the speech, and is usually interpreted as collaborative and cooperative.

Another type of interruption is the power interruption, where the interrupter breaks in and cuts off the speaker as a way to display some social power. Power interruptions are understood as acts of conflict and competition, and are viewed as rude, hostile, disrespectful, and/or uncaring about the speaker and/or what the speaker is saying.

Speak Up Anyway To Be Happy And Successful At Work

In AVA's workshop on Speak Up with Dr. Alessandra Wall, we talked about the reasons why it's hard for women to speak up and the consequences women face when they speak up. Most importantly, we talked about how important it is to speak up anyway. Aside from needing to let out these thoughts and feelings, it is the path to your career success. Dr. Wall says, speaking up is the easiest way to effect change in our lives. When we give up the power and the tool, we limit what kind of impact we can have.

Tips To Interrupt The Interrupters

1) BYU Research Concluded That Positive Support Matters

“Think about being an ally,” says economic professor from BYU Olga Stoddard. Protect—even solicit—the speech of women in the room. If they are interrupted, ask them to finish a thought. Practice positive interruptions, like “That’s an interesting point” or “I’m glad you brought that up.”

Men especially can have an impact. “We found that in settings where a man would support a woman’s statement, she was able to be more influential,” says Stoddard.

2) Take Control Ahead of Time

By prefacing your remarks with statements like: “I definitely want to hear your thoughts and feedback on this, but first I’d like to lay everything out” or “Our discussion will be more productive if I share my proposal fully first and then take your questions” you have set the “rule” that people should wait until you finish.

3) Create and Enforce a “No Interruptions” Rule

Glen Mazzara, executive producer of "The Shield" and formerly of "The Walking Dead," dealt with male writers' attempts to keep female writers from contributing during discussions by having a no-interruptions rule.

4) Interrupt The Interrupter

  • If you are cut off in conversation, an ally can cut off the interrupter: “Kelsey was mid-sentence, please let her finish her thought”

  • Keep talking and use a nice hand gesture to help indicate: wait a moment please

  • If you are the victim of a power interruption, you can address the offender by name. “John, I am not finished making my point, give me a moment."

Seat At The Table Or Not, Let The World Know Your Value

Don't be silent and give up your power or success at work. Break societal norms. Speak assertively and with confidence. Find allies to boost your confidence and get around the double bind. Take control by planning ahead for how to pre-empt or handle interruptions. Bring your value to light and advance your career by speaking up and being heard.


What topics do you want to discuss? Let us know in the comments below. #advancewithava

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