The recent spectacle of Senator Kamala Harris’s male colleagues repeatedly cutting her off at Senate Intelligence Committee hearings is the latest reminder of what several studies dating back to at least 1975 have shown, and what female professionals have been saying for decades: All too often, women at work can’t finish a sentence without being interrupted, usually by a man.
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. (The latest prominent example was David Bonderman, the former Uber board member who resigned after saying as much at a board meeting in response to a comment about gender diversity.)
“We have to be very careful about ‘fix the woman’ type of thinking,” says Judith Williams, a diversity consultant and the former head of unconscious-bias training at Google. She famously put her own job on the line—and raised awareness of this dynamic—in 2015, when she called out Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, for repeatedly interrupting a woman with whom he was speaking at a South by Southwest panel focusing on, of all things, diversity in tech.
Williams says that “fix the woman” thinking also suggests that an employee hasn’t already calculated her options and made deliberate choices about how to respond in these situations. “Women adopt certain behaviors because they’re effective,” she says. For example, women negotiate salaries less than men not just because they can be more shy; it’s also because they rightly fear losing their job altogether. “It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ circumstance,” Williams says.
Rather than leave it to individual women (or men) to parry interruptions themselves, though, there are some employers who are concerned enough about these problems to take steps to solve them. “Any pattern happening on an unconscious or conscious basis in the workplace can be taken on and confronted,” says Arin Reeves, who has researched workplace inclusion and runs a Chicago-based company, Nextions, that has worked with Fortune 500 companies, big law firms, and other clients to attract and retain diverse talent.
When it comes to interruptions, Reeves urges her clients to start by rethinking how meetings work. For instance, rather than tossing out a question and waiting for someone to speak up, whoever’s leading the meeting could go around the table and ask people to take turns weighing in. They might borrow from indigenous traditions that use a talking stick: If someone is holding the stick (or beach ball, or hat, or what have you), no one else is allowed to talk. It might feel awkward and silly at first, but over time, the rule creates a new normal and gets people used to turns.
Reeves agrees turn-based meetings can be more worthwhile for everyone, not just women. In making that point, she compares the experience of watching a character talk in a movie with being in a conversation at work. “When you’re watching a movie, you’re really focused on hearing the dialogue and understanding what’s being said,” she says. “You’re able to put your full attention into it because the part of you that wants to respond is muted.” In a free-for-all meeting, there’s constant pressure to think of something smart to say, which leaves less room to digest what everyone else is saying.
Reeves also recommends keeping a note on a whiteboard or the conference table asking people to avoid interruptions. “Humans are much better at changing their behavior when we see environmental cues as opposed to being told, ‘That wasn’t nice, don’t do that,’” says Reeves. Visual aids seem unlikely to satisfy those who want popular flashpoints, such as Kamala Harris’s blocked questions, to open deeper conversations about gender and power in the workplace. Reeves says exploring those issues is important, but says that in her experience, an environmental cue can be more effective than even a daylong diversity workshop. She recommends that her clients back up those cues with a brief note at the start of a meeting, such as, “We know everyone has a lot to say. There’s a lot of talent around the table. But one of our values is to let people finish, and listen with the intention of hearing, not just with the intention to respond.”
Reeves says that while she’s seen these strategies work, many employers don’t feel comfortable broaching the subject, or insist that it’s not a problem at their company. Sometimes, she jotted notes during meetings and conference calls with clients, marking every interruption she heard and coding each one by gender, to help them see what she was seeing. “When I observe and show it back, there can be some embarrassment,” says Reeves. “That’s the motivation to say, ‘Alright, Arin, what do we put in place?’”
Aside from the most important concern—trying to make sure employees feel comfortable and empowered at work, no matter their gender—these initiatives might also be good for business. A welcoming environment can help in recruiting top talent. And, as Judith Williams argues, if some people get heard and others don’t, a company isn’t maximizing its exposure to potentially innovative ideas. Lately, books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts and new research on the effectiveness of “confidence” versus “competence” have challenged the notion that those with the loudest voices in the room have the most valuable things to say.
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 similar to Reeves’s, 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. “It’s important that people understand that receiving feedback is not an indictment of your personality,” Williams says. “We all make mistakes. We have a set of behaviors that we want to be our norms, and just like a muscle, it takes practice.” By 2016, after Williams had moved on to head diversity efforts at Dropbox, over half of Google’s 60,000 employees had seen her presentation.
Williams says how—or whether—a company addresses the gender imbalance of interruptions is increasingly likely to be seen as a sign of its values. After the South by Southwest panel in which she challenged Schmidt for interrupting a woman, she says that while Schmidt never followed up to discuss her point, she got an outpouring of messages from other Google employees at all levels of the organization, thanking her for speaking up.
Women at work have a harder time doing their jobs when they are left to speak in breathless bursts, or when there’s a certain ratio of men to women in the room. Their employers can help fix that, if they’re willing to admit the problem exists in the first place.
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