Women Are Being Interrupted … Again!

Yet another study shows women are interrupted more than men.  

A recent article in The New York Times, For Women in Economics, the Hostility Is Out in the Open, discusses a study reported last month that found when female economists presented their research findings, they were interrupted by audience members asking questions. The women received 12 percent more questions than men, and they were more likely to get questions that were patronizing or hostile.

Other examples of women being interrupted more than men include:

--A few years ago an article in the Harvard Business Review,  Female Supreme Court Justices are interrupted more by male justices and advocates, found that male justices interrupted female justices about three times as often as they interrupted each other during oral arguments. The research also found that “there is no point at which a woman is high-status enough not to be interrupted.”

--During a women’s communication seminar in Kuwait some years ago I commented that men interrupt women more than they interrupt other men. One of my students said, “Barbara, you’re right. You can see the American men interrupt the American women on your TV shows that we get here.” I was surprised that this gender bias was so obvious – but I really shouldn’t have been. 

When a woman is interrupted regularly with questions or comments (anyone can be interrupted occasionally), her credibility is being challenged, and her influence can certainly be minimized as a result.

The following suggestions can help women – and men – to manage interruptions assertively, whether people are asking unsolicited questions or interjecting unwanted comments during small meetings or large group presentations: 

Let people know when you will be taking questions. Either the speaker or the meeting organizer can tell people how the Q&A will be handled. Often the audience is asked to hold questions until the end – though this doesn’t mean everyone will do so! The Times article mentioned that “several universities have instituted rules meant to cut down on bad behavior, such as banning questions for the first 10 or 15 minutes of a talk so that speakers [economists] can get through at least the beginning of their presentations uninterrupted.”

Continue speaking. If you do so, the person trying to interrupt you often will stop talking. You may need to raise your volume a little to make sure the person hears you, but don’t shout.

Ask yourself: Are you making it easy for people to interrupt you?  Don’t underestimate the power of your nonverbal communication skills. Appear assertive – keep your body language open, and don’t cross your arms. Look at the audience. When you avoid looking at your audience, some members may feel emboldened to interrupt. Make sure you don’t move back when interrupted – it can make you appear fearful. Move towards audience members when you can. Check your rate of speech: Are you speaking too slowly, which allows others to jump in? Check your volume: Are you speaking loudly enough to have what you say come across authoritatively?

Defer answering, if the answer to the question will be explained later in your talk. Often, you can say, “I am going to hold off answering that question as I will be discussing that topic in a few minutes.” Of course, if the CEO asked the question, you may want to answer it right away!

Don’t be a puppet on your audience’s string. If the audience is shouting questions at you, make sure you repeat the question you are about to answer. If you don’t, you are being controlled by the audience as you try to field one question after another. When you take the time to repeat the question, you gain control – you decide which questions to address, and in what order. 

After you have answered someone’s question, do not ask, “Did that answer your question?” You could be setting yourself up, as the person may respond, “No.” And then what do you do? If the questioner wants more information, he or she will let you know – or seek you out later.

Related: What’s in a Title? A Lot ... Especially for Women