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.”