Have you watched the democratic presidential debates? They hold a lesson for professional women. Even as the number of candidates dwindle, the interruptions still come fast and furiously. But who is interrupting and what is the impact of an interruption on a candidates “likeability” and “electability” (two terms that are being used, mostly, to describe the women candidates.) In fact, in an informal study, (done by me), much of the interrupting is done by men. Additional study reveals that Trump interrupted Clinton 40 times in their debates.
I became so down right uncomfortable with the interrupting as candidates vied for the stage, talking over one an other, raising voices, and gesticulating, that I turned the sound off. What I wondered at that moment was, why was I so put off by the clamor? It wasn’t just the noise, it was the chaos and the feeling I had that, while not everyone was shouting, there was important information that I would miss and that the most important and useful information would not necessarily come from those – the men – who took the floor by demanding it.
Even on a national stage occupied by practiced politicians wooing voters nothing predicts who will exercise interruptive tactics as much as gender. Men simply put, interrupt more than women. I believe there are several reasons why this happens. Men are accustomed to dominating group conversations and are comfortable with the “speak now” approach and women are reluctant to interrupt. It may be because women don’t want to appear “shrill” or impolite, or perhaps it is that good manners and etiquette lessons are hard to forget.
Shrill is a tough epithet for women to overcome. To me it implies a measure of desperation and unchecked aggression. Professional women, even seasoned speakers and campaigners, tend to wait their turn to speak rather than risk the label. The result, in a group dominated by men who are accustomed to speaking out without being called on, is that women wait so long they don’t get heard at all.
In the workplace, this dynamic is just as likely to exist. Women’s good ideas may get talked over. Professional women who force their way into the workplace conversation may be termed pushy, over-eager, shrill. Women who wait for a moment to speak without interrupting may never be heard and are dismissed as lacking ideas, or not able to contribute meaningfully to the team effort. So whether you are Elizabeth Warren or me, you will find your work cut out for you as you struggle to be heard in a way that doesn’t punish your for trying.
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