Mansplaining, Manterrupting & Bropropriating: Gender Bias and the Pervasive Interruption of Women

Research Question:

Is there a gender difference in meetings, conference calls and/or panel discussions at conferences, especially at the higher visibility leadership levels, in: who is interrupted more, who interrupts more, who is more likely to interrupt whom, who is more likely to realize the interruption behaviors, and how interruptions are perceived and managed?

Introduction

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Methodology

I observed/listened to 15 live meetings, 11 conference calls, and 3 panel discussions at conferences between July 2014 and January 2015 for a total of approximately 41 hours (2460 minutes) of conversations. All of the meetings, calls and plenaries included people in leadership organizations within their organizations — Vice Presidents or above in corporate entities and Partners/Managing Directors or above in professional service firms. Each conversation had at least 5 people with at least 2 of the people being women. The number of women generally ranged from 20% to 45% of the group being observed/heard; women were not the numerical majority in any of the groups. I was not an active participant in any of the meetings, but I was an invited guest given an ongoing advisory role with the organizations involved. Neither the organizations nor the individuals in the room were aware that I was observing the number of interruptions. I informed them of my observations at the end of the conversation.

Findings & Discussion

The general findings of this informal study were consistent with Snyder’s findings and added a few additional nuances that provide insights as to which contexts can lead to more interruptions of women and how women internalize these interruptions, especially the intrusive interruptions.

Findings: Context Matters

As previously noted, the average number of interruptions was highest on plenaries followed by live meetings and then conference calls. This also aligned with how likely women were to get interrupted intrusively in these different contexts. Women were most likely to get intrusively interrupted on panel discussions, and they were least likely to get interrupted on conference calls.

Findings: Conscious vs Unconscious Interruptions

In the individual interviews with several of the men and women who had participated in these meetings/calls/plenaries, most of the men reported not being aware of either interrupting anyone or having been interrupted. Although a couple of the men did remember being interrupted (both by other men), and they recalled a quick conscious decision-making moment when they chose to respond to the interruptions by getting back into the conversations, most of the men’s interruptions of others and/or responses to being interrupted were not conscious or deliberate for them.

Ideas for Inclusion

Create and use agendas for meetings. An increase in structure leads to a decrease in interruptions. When the meeting’s purpose, leader, outcomes, etc. are defined well, there is greater clarity as to who should be speaking and why. This is absolutely more applicable in meetings that don’t involve a lot of brainstorming, but even in “free thought” meetings, an informal agenda can decrease interruptions. Additionally, when a woman sets the agenda for the meeting and/or leads the meeting, it is easier for her to reclaim the floor if she is interrupted.

Final Thoughts

We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in workplaces without exploring what happens when women are consistently interrupted in the workplace. If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?

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Arin N. Reeves

Arin N. Reeves

a fierce advocate for justice, a geeky catalyst for smarter thinking on inclusion and equity & a firm believer that most rules were meant to be broken