I sometimes get in trouble for interrupting others. I interrupt others more than I probably should, and it is something I plan on working on. Yet, when I started paying more attention to my own actions (and I do interrupt a good amount), it brought up another clear pattern: the gentleman, who had recently pointed out my bad behavior, committed the same social offenses. I wondered if interrupting itself was the issue, or if perhaps a woman interrupting makes the act more socially unacceptable.
Interrupting is an aggressive act. When you interrupt someone, you are dominating the dialogue. This domination implies that you believe your contributions are more important than others and that you posses more or better knowledge. By interrupting, you indicate that you deserve more of the discussion space. Interestingly, research supports that women are less likely to take up this public discussion space. VIDA, an organization for female authors, recently released a study on tracked bylines for a variety of online and print publications, finding huge gender disparities. A second analysis completed by Hagen-Dillon found that publications such as the New York Times and Washington Post had the lowest female writers at around 25 percent. Online sources tend to have more female voices, though most contributors are still male. Content for websites such as Wikipedia, which has a significant impact on our collective knowledge, is also largely submitted by males. Even the debate on public policy shows huge gaps in gender: in the Senate we only hold 17 out of 100 seats, and in the House we hold around 75 out of 435 seats. This amounts to about 17 percent of the U.S. Congress.
Woman’s voices are under-represented. Interestingly these disparities are not simply due to organizations ignoring female voices, as data supports that women to a large degree are choosing not to participate in public debates. Even though I use the word “choose,” social gender identity can influence many subtle behaviors that make it harder for women to be included. Women have been socialized to believe it is polite to wait their turn to speak, and have been taught not to retaliate against interruptions by others. The problem is that these rules only apply to women, and when we follow these social rules, we have to deal with the unfortunate consequences of being eliminated from the debate. It is not surprising that female professionals tend to report feeling ignored and dismissed by their peers and superiors.
As women, we have learned to discount our knowledge and ourselves in general. The underlying problem may be that we have internalized our own stereotypes, and feel that our knowledge doesn’t matter. Growing up we perceive that we are not expected to stand in the intellectual spotlight, and we fear that taking center stage may make us overstep some boundary. It is difficult for us to say that we are an expert in something, let alone that we deserve to be at the forefront of public debate. Yet, having more diverse opinions would help us better understand the many complex issues affecting us all. If we ignore half of our population, we are really going to miss out on unique knowledge and creative ideas.
So perhaps next time someone points out that you interrupt too much…let him or her be offended.