I recently posted two articles about people who interrupt. In the first, Why Do People Interrupt?, I explained the many causes of interruption. Then in the second I discussed how to stop someone who constantly interrupts, both gently and not so gently. But this series would not be complete without addressing what actually inspired the episodes. It was an email from a listener whose new boss, a woman, interrupted him frequently. When I read it I had to ask myself: does she really interrupt him more than a male manager would, or does it just seem that way to him?
Either could be the case, because there is, unfortunately, a gender-related catch to this. Allow me to explain.
Gender Bias in Business Communication
I know from large amounts of academic research, my own work with executives, and many real-life examples, that men interrupt more in business meetings than women do. And in fact, they interrupt women far more than they interrupt men. A very interesting, non-rigorous investigation by linguist Kiran Snyder found several things. First, people interrupt a lot. Second, men interrupt more than woman overall. Men are almost three times as likely to interrupt women as they are to interrupt other men. Women interrupt each other constantly, but almost never interrupt men. Many more rigorous academic studies show similar results. There’s even a humorous but unsettling (and somewhat controversial) YouTube video called Manterruptions, showing many public examples of it.
I noticed this bias played out in the September presidential primary debate, when Chris Christie stopped Carly Fiorina, the only woman on stage, from interrupting him. In a way, Chris Christie was alluding to this bias when he characterized Fiorina in a later interview as being rude. Although he said that he wouldn't treat her any differently on a debate stage just because she was a woman, the fact is that EVERYONE interrupts on a debate stage. It's part of the process. And he didn't call the male candidates rude when they interrupted.
And in a perfect example of irony, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was caught manterrupting while on a Silicon Valley panel on gender and diversity. And he wasn’t doing it to just anyone; he was doing it to the only woman on the panel (sound familiar?) who just happened to be the U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. He was called out on this by Google’s global diversity manager, who pointed out in front of the audience, “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.” Ouch. That could not have felt good!
Resisting the Bias Comes at a Price
Unfortunately, studies seem to indicate that, at least in the current climate, the only way for women to really move up in the corporate world is to interrupt back. The old saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” seems to be the only workable solution right now. In the Slate article that describes Snyder's investigation, she says, "The results suggest that women don't advance in their careers beyond a certain point without learning to interrupt," at least in a male-dominate tech setting. In fact, the investigation by Snyder showed that the only women who ever interrupted men happened to be high ranking in the company.
I'm sure that during her long career in technology, Ms. Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, had plenty of practice (and possibly even coaching) interrupting others and allowing her opinions to be known in a male-dominated industry. And maybe my listener’s boss did, too. But that forcefulness comes at a price.
Most powerful executive women learn that speaking up more often leads to penalties in perceptions of competence and likability. That is, successful female leaders learn to carefully choose when to speak up because they learn over time that speaking up too often leads to being disliked. Women who assert themselves are often labeled as bossy, or worse. Gender bias research suggests that women are actually penalized more for interrupting. The research (and again my experience) shows that when a woman speaks up in meetings, she is either barely heard or judged as too aggressive. Men have much more leeway for this agentic behavior.
And this extends beyond just interrupting. Actress Jennifer Lawrence made a lot of press last year when, after the Sony hack, she discovered that she was making way less money than her male counterparts. But what this discovery made her realize was that she was being treated differently in other ways, too. Here’s a direct quote from her article in the online newsletter, Lenny:
A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bull---t way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.