Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor get interrupted frequently by men while in court. Here’s how you can prevent the ‘manterruption’ in your life.
Notorious she may be, but even Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets ‘manterrupted.’
That’s according to a new study from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, which tracked oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. The survey found that in the 12 years to 2015, female justices were interrupted three times more often than the opposite sex by their male colleagues and lawyers appearing before the bench (an exception is the famously tight-lipped Clarence Thomas, who almost never speaks in oral argument.) By contrast, though females make up about 24% of the high court’s nine judges during that period of time, they only made 4% of all interruptions.
That even black robed eminence grise of the judiciary get cut off by men comes as no surprise to communications experts. “Not. At. All.” says Leslie Shore, author of “Listen To Succeed.” “It’s an age-old issue of power within communications…men are socialized to feel it’s legitimate to exert power by interrupting.”
Of course, getting an upper hand in the fight over workplace dynamics isn’t necessarily a good thing. For one, failing to listen often deprives one of valuable information. “When female justices are being cut off when asking questions, they’re being denied the opportunity to gather information that’s important to decision making,” Tonja Jacobi, one of the study’s authors, tells Moneyish.
Not everyone is self conscious enough to improve, but there are some things that women—or indeed anyone who cares about having engaged conversations—can do to increase the likelihood of finishing your train of thought.
First, Shore recommends setting up barriers. “There’s no question you train people how to treat you,” she says. “If you set a boundary and consistently speak up when people interrupt you, that person eventually stops because it becomes embarrassing.”
That said, it’s important to do so gently but firmly. Gender norms often mean women who call our their male interrupters get branded abrasive b—ches, says Arin Reeves of executive coaching firm Nextions. “Women unfortunately have to negotiate the process because they get punished if they push back too directly,” says Reeves, who recommends using some variation of “I want to hear what you’re saying, but I also want to finish what I’m saying.”
Second, drop unnecessary politesse. As the Northwestern study finds, female justices often get cut off when they use words or phrases like ‘please’ and ‘can I ask…’ Indeed, senior justices like Ginsburg and the now-retired Sandra Day O’Connor get interrupted less over the years as they ditch the diversions for directness.
“This is a strategy that men already use,” notes Shore. “There’s an old saying ‘men do report and women do rapport’ but when you get to a point of seniority, the communication has to be parallel.”
Finally, managers that lead conversations can structure them so that interruptions become harder to make. Reeves recommends going around in a circle so that everyone has a chance to speak during a meeting. If everyone has a shot at voicing their thoughts, that reduces the need to cut in on someone else’s time.
Shore thinks bosses should be trained to chime in when they detect interruptions, thereby setting an example that listening takes precedence over talking. That’s akin to a strategy used by women in the Obama administration, who frequently repeat good ideas raised by other women that may not have had a fair hearing.
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