To the women of Australia, if you feel like you (or the women around you) are having your credibility chipped away by interruptions, allegations of being “emotions”, you are not imagining it. It’s happening.
Joanna Richards, a PhD student at the University of Canberra, analysed Senate Estimate Committee hearings across ten years to assess the frequency and nature of interruptions by and to male and female witnesses for her thesis, “Let Her Finish”.
“Sobering is how I would describe the findings,” Richards told Women’s Agenda.
The research confirmed the authority and effectiveness of female politicians is limited by masculine communication tactics.
While women made more interruptions than men, their interruptions were used in a positive way to show support or agreement. By contrast, male politicians tended to use negative power-playing tactics.
“When women interrupt, it’s usually in defence, or positively in support of another female speaker or a less powerful speaker, whereas almost 75 per cent of the male interruptions were negatively trying to take power or take the floor from another speaker.”
Other findings include:
– women don’t speak as much without interruption as men.
– of 311 interruptions that questioned a speaker’s authority and credibility, 213 were directed towards women.
– female witnesses were called emotional, unreasonable or words to similar effect 163 times, and 120 of these comments were made by men.
– women were more likely to be punished for their interruptions, than their male peers, by the chair during public hearings.
Richards says the findings make clear this form of sexism is overwhelming.
Watching Gillian Triggs in a fiery Senate Estimates hearing in 2015, gave Richards the idea for her research.
“It really upset me and I couldn’t understand why. I watched Gillian Triggs get berated for seven hours. And then seeing Penny Wong and Sarah Hanson-Young trying to defend her but getting no further, I wanted to know how this type of sexism affected women,” Richards said. “It’s such a subtle thing but communication is so powerful. It’s a gatekeeping tool”
Given the wealth of research which suggests that equal representation does not necessarily guarantee equal treatment, Richards chose to focus on the space in between a politician winning a seat and making a difference where components of communication and interaction affect the authority of a speaker.
“I worked with a set of hypotheses expecting to disprove myself. ‘This is what I think – but surely can’t be the case’ was my starting point,” Richards says. “All of my baseline hypotheses were proved, overwhelmingly, which surprised me.”
She stuck to quantitative measures in a bid to protect her research from the inevitable feedback this type of work attracts
“It’s hard to write feminist research because people seek to discredit it so I wanted this research to be based on cold, hard data,” Richards says. Already, she has been told she has a “victimist narrative” which, in some ways, merely reinforces her findings. More importantly, however Richards is grateful that her work has attracted coverage.
“Given how often we see men speak over women, it’s really important we give this subject the attention it needs,” Richards says. “It’s incredibly powerful because speech is how you get things done. When women are interrupted in the way they are, or punished when they seek to interrupt, they can’t get ahead. How can they do their job?”
It’s a good question. And it’s likely applicable in many settings – not just parliament.
“The report allows women to feel like they are not imagining the treatment they receive,” Richard says. “The report is the invisible friend – a reminder that you’re not making it up.”