Hands up if you’re a woman and you’ve never been interrupted or spoken over at work or in life or have never seen another woman interrupted or spoken over by a man? I hazard a guess that no woman falls into this camp.
Being interrupted and/or spoken over by a man is common and is known as ‘manterruption’.
As well as being annoying, manterruption is a big component of what holds women back at work. Unable to finish their sentences, women have fewer chances to share their ideas and insights and fewer opportunities to demonstrate their competence. We therefore have lowered odds of being selected for stretch opportunities or leadership roles.
When I first started working at an organisation where the culture was very masculine and manterrupting women was normal and accepted, I was taken aback. After a while, immediately after I was manterrupted, I started simply saying, “I haven’t finished.” If the person who had manterrupted me kept going with their manterruption, I’d repeat, “I haven’t finished.”
Apparently, I also had ‘a look’ that accompanied this exchange and often ‘a tone’. Reportedly, all of this made people scared to manterrupt me or to manterrupt other women when I was present. Eventually, they were scared to manterrupt other women even when I wasn’t present. Complaints were made to my boss about my look, my tone and my ‘style’. A coach was appointed to assist me with my style. No, I am not making this up. But I digress.
American politician Kamala Harris – the vice-president of America – was my 2020 girl crush. In the vice-presidential debate in early October 2020, her opponent interrupted and spoke over her. She said, politely, ‘Mr Vice-President, I’m speaking.’ He ignored her and continued with his manterruption. She repeated, a tiny bit more forcefully, ‘I’m speaking.’ He stopped.
The world’s media dissected her repeated retort and it was widely reported. She gained new social media followers and became a role-model and possibly a girl crush for women everywhere. Just after the debate, the American President at the time referred to her as a ‘monster’ and ‘unlikeable’.
Closer to home, in November 2020, an ABC television 4 Corners program titled, ‘Inside the Canberra Bubble’, revealed strong evidence of a sexist culture in the federal government. The next day, the Prime Minister and senior female minister, Anne Ruston faced the press.
Ruston was asked about her experience and perception as a woman, of the culture in government. She began to answer the question the journalist had asked her. Morrison manterrupted her and gave his answer to her question before allowing her to speak.
What to do? When the leader of the country is manterrupting women, is there any hope? New York Times contributing columnist and editor Jessica Bennett offers these excellent ideas to countering manterruptions:
- Practise bystander intervention. You can do this by interrupting the manterrupter politely and asking him to let the person speaking finish, or telling him you want to hear what the woman has to say. If you are physically nearby and COVID-safe protocols allow, gently nudge him. Gently.
- Create a buddy system with a male colleague before a meeting. Ask him to look interested when you speak and to nod when he agrees with you. Ask him to back you up publicly. Ask him to ask any manterrupters in the upcoming meeting to ‘shhhhhhhhhhhh’.
- Establish a ‘no interruptions’ rule in meetings. When someone is speaking, they are enabled to finish without interruption. If you are not the chair with the power to establish such a rule, suggest this to the chair in an offline conversation.
Bennett suggests that if all else fails, you can always learn how to talk really, really loudly. I’d add that you should do so in a deep voice. While also wearing a false moustache so that possibly you are mistaken for a man and therefore, less likely to be manterrupted.
Once I was reporting to a man who manterrupted me – every single time – I spoke in our team meetings. He added a gesture of raising his flat palm vertically in the air facing towards me (like a stop sign). It was pretty dispiriting.
I decided to raise the matter with him privately. As I explained the issue, saying, “When I speak in our team meetings, you interrupt me and raise your hand to me —” he manterrupted me, made his usual stop-sign hand gesture toward me, and said, “No I don’t”.
We both looked at his hand, suspended in the air between us. “I think we can both see that you do”, I said quietly. He looked in wonderment at his own hand. To his credit, now aware of his behaviour, he subsequently did try not to manterrupt me as often (he couldn’t quite manage ceasing it altogether).
When I am manterrupted now, I say, every time, “[Person’s name], I haven’t finished.” I repeat it as many times as is necessary until the person speaking stops speaking. Sometimes I smile pleasantly between my protests. Sometimes I’m angry – especially if it’s a repeat offender – and that shows a little. I can live with that. It’s better than the alternative.