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July 7, 2017

How often are women interrupted by men? Here's what the research says.

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 30, 2018.

Women are frequently interrupted by men, according to research that looked at business settings and even the Supreme Court—but there are strategies that men and women alike can use to address the issue.

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A consistent pattern

Numerous studies have examined this phenomenon, and they've all reached the same conclusion: Men consistently interrupt women.

For instance, one study analyzed 31 separate two-part conversations, 10 of which were between two men, 10 of which were between two women, and 11 of which were between a man and a woman.  The researchers identified seven interruptions overall in the two same-sex groups combined; in the male-female groups, however, the researchers found 48 total interruptions—and 46 of them were instigated by the man. "There are definite and patterned ways in which the power and dominance enjoyed by men in other contexts are exercised in their conversational interaction with women," the researchers wrote.

Meanwhile, a separate study from George Washington University found that men interrupted 33 percent more often when they spoke with women than when they spoke with other men. According to the researchers, over the course of a three-minute conversation, men interrupted women 2.1 times. In contrast, during conversations of the same duration, men interrupted other men only 1.8 times—and women on average interrupted men only once.

And another study, from researchers at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, found that this pattern of men interrupting women even happens at the Supreme Court. For the study, the researchers looked at 15 years' worth of oral argument transcripts to see how often men—whether on the bench themselves or advocates before the high court—interrupted female justices.

According to the researchers, over the last 12 years—during which time women have comprised 24 percent of the bench—female justices being interrupted accounted for 32 percent of interruptions overall, while female justices interrupting others accounted for 4 percent of interruptions overall.

Over time, the researchers said, as more women have joined the high court, "the situation only seems to be getting worse," the researchers said. For instance, in 1990, when only one justice was a woman—former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor—35.7 percent of interruptions were directed at O'Connor. In 2002, when there were two female justices—O'Connor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—45.3 percent of interruptions were directed at them. As of 2015, with three female justices on the bench—Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan—65.9 percent of all interruptions are directed at them.  

Addressing gender imbalance

But there are ways to address the issue, Leslie Shore, a communication expert and author of "Listen to Succeed," writes in Forbes. Shore recommends three strategies:

  1. Men should pause before they interrupt someone and consider the implications, Shore writes. For instance, you might ask yourself why you are interrupting someone: Are you seeking clarity on an issue—if so, make sure you give the floor back to the speaker after asking the question. Are you trying to help yourself remember something key? Then take notes instead, she writes.

  2. Women should push back if they are interrupted for any other reason than clarity, Shore says. You might stop the interrupter by saying you have a few more points to make, and asking that he or she wait until you're done. In addition, women might make small tweaks to their behavior, including speaking in shorter sentences, physically leaning in when they speak, maintaining eye contact, and using firmer language ("will" instead of "might," or "know" instead of "believe").

  3. Everyone should remember that different people have different styles of communication—and interruptions generally aren't "meant to be personal," Shore writes. Make an effort to learn about how others communicate.

Meanwhile, some companies are trying to address the issue by improving the gender balance, according to the New York Times' "Business Day." The effort aligns with research that examined how speech patterns changed as more women joined decision-making boards. According to the study, women on school boards did not speak for an equal amount of time as men until women comprised at least 80 percent of the board—and men, even when in the minority, did not speak up less frequently (Shore, Forbes, 1/3; Jacobi/Schweers, Harvard Business Review, 4/11; Chira, New York Times, 6/14).

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