Men and women communicate differently. We get it. But that doesn’t explain why men interrupt women far more often than they interrupt other men. Or what to do about it. For that, we turn to the research.
Sociologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara analyzed 31 two-party conversations recorded in public settings such as cafes, stores and campuses. They included 10 conversations between two men, 10 between two women and 11 between a woman and a man.
Trying to get a word in edgewise
When men spoke with other men, the researchers recorded seven instances of interruption, a rate similar to the conversation between two women. But when a man and woman spoke together, there were 48 interruptions — 46 of them with the man interrupting the woman. A study at George Washington University found men interrupted 33% more often when talking with a woman than a man.
Research by linguist Kieran Snyder found it was just as hard for women to get the floor in professional settings. “Over the course of a four-week period, I sat in on dozens of meetings in my office, observing a total of 900 minutes of conversation,” Snyder reported. “I discovered that men not only interrupted twice as often as women but were nearly three times as likely to interrupt women as they were to interrupt other men.”
The implication of these studies is straightforward: A woman’s claim to the conversational space within the office is not treated equally to that of a man’s. But you probably already knew that. The trick is to figure out how to make workplace conversation more productive and more equitable despite differing conversational styles among the sexes.
Giving women the floor
First, men need to understand the unconscious bias inherent in their conversation style. In male interactions, studies show that a certain amount of interruption, referred to as “co-operative overlap,” is a positive trend that signifies active participation. When speaking with women, however, the natural assertiveness of the male social style can be limiting, as women tend to approach conversation more collaboratively.
One step male professionals can take is to allow their female colleagues more room to express themselves. If a woman is speaking, let her finish her thought. Collaboration is just as useful when held until the completion of a sentence.
Another positive step can be implemented at the executive level as recently suggested by President & CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Dawn Sweeney. “When our industry’s senior leaders commit to paying full attention when women are speaking in their own organizations and elsewhere, it will change how women are perceived and increase their power in the workplace.” When leadership makes the focused effort to pay equal attention while women speak, the rest of the organization is more likely to follow suit.
The most important step, however, women can take themselves. If interrupted, don’t be afraid to say, “Please let me finish,” or “I have a key point to make and then I would love to hear your thoughts.” When you see other women interrupted, support her by saying: “I’d like to hear her thinking on this.”