The recent cases of manterrupting in the news have refocused the spotlight on the age-old problem of men who, intentionally or not, monopolize the discussion or interrupt women’s speaking turns. As Tali Mendelberg and Chris Karpowtiz told CNN, women need more than a seat at the table, and their studies revealed that women are silenced when they hold a smaller percentage of the room. Further academic studies, dating back to as early as 1975, make it clear that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men.
While women have to be able to gain equal time on the floor and be shown enough respect to make their ideas heard, the burden of changing the status quo should not fall only to women. As recently reported in The Atlantic, “Part of the problem with the usual advice for curbing these interruptions is that it puts the onus on women to do something differently. They are frequently encouraged to speak up—even though this is what they are so often prevented from doing in the first place and even though some men seem to view any amount of speech from a woman as annoying and superfluous.”
Judith Williams, a diversity consultant and former head of unconscious-bias training at Google warns that we have to be careful about ‘fix the woman’ type of thinking. At Google, Williams developed and led a “bias-busting” presentation, and later a workshop, which took on a range of patterns related to unconscious bias as it plays out in meetings, mentorships, and promotions. She recommended methods such as taking turns and stating a “zero interruptions” policy at the start of a meeting. She also encouraged an atmosphere where it’s okay to gently point out when a colleague is being interrupted and redirect the conversation back to them, no matter how senior the guilty party is.
There are many ways that male leaders can value, praise and advance women. To change the way men and women communicate and make their voices heard in the workplace is going to take all of us working together. Several companies are beginning to take note of the issue, and are taking steps to curb the problem – making sure employees feel comfortable and empowered at work, no matter their gender.
Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in Financial Times that she has witnessed a number of techniques used by effective male leaders to ensure everyone is heard. For example, not only should male leaders give a women credit for a point or idea when she makes it, it is also important to make sure that all women at the table have a chance to speak. Slaughter also writes that if a woman is interrupted, it is important that leadership makes sure to either forestall the interruption or to come back to her. That practice will again emphasize that you genuinely value what she has to say, rather than just hearing her voice. It is of course an excellent practice when men are interrupted too.
PR Week points out that the status quo is limiting. It’s damaging for women to be seen as bossy when they speak up at work. While much progress has been made, the reality is that there is a lot of work to be done before equality is achieved. By recognizing the problem, and working together to solve it, we can create workplaces that attract and retain top talent, and reach parity sooner rather than later. It is time that we truly work together to level the playing field, and create an inclusive workplace that supports both women and men.