Under the U.S. Constitution, we are equal in the eyes of the law — but according to one study, men and women are not being treated equally at the Supreme Court.
We already know that women get interrupted more often when they’re speaking. What we know now is that even powerful women — the most powerful women in America, arguably — experience the same thing.
Looking at oral arguments over the past 12 years, two Northwestern University researchers found that the female justices were getting interrupted three times more than their male colleagues: “32% of interruptions were of the female justices,” and in 2015, 65.9% of all interruptions on the court were aimed at its only women — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
An interesting side note: “Only 4% of interruptions were by the female justices.”
Why it matters that women get to speak full sentences
These women aren’t shrinking violets; they’re pioneering women who have achieved the highest legal authority in America. In the history of the Supreme Court, there have only been four female justices on the bench; three of them are there now.
Interruptions matter for more than just manners. To make a case for higher pay or more responsibility, women have to be part of the conversation.
Oral arguments are where outcomes to court cases get debated and decided. When a female justice gets cut off, she is less able to question advocates or convince her colleagues of her argument. This study proves that interpersonal relationships matters just as much as institutional ones when it comes to organizational power, and on the bench, as in other workplaces, women have less of it.
There are other examples of women in power getting interrupted. During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times in one debate, while Clinton interrupted Trump 17 times, according to Vox.
When she would get interrupted, Clinton wouldn’t stop, apologize, or ask for her rightful time. She smiled and kept speaking over the interruption.
This turns out to be the best strategy, and there are several others that work well.
How to stop interruptions: a three-step plan
1. Don’t stop speaking or apologize for speaking. Just speak.
When you know a man is going to interrupt you, women on the bench learned that they needed to cut straight to the point.
The researchers found that to combat the interruptions, female justices like Elena Kagan would learn to stop framing their questions politely with, “May I ask…” or an “Excuse me.”
Even politely addressing the advocate by name was seen as an opportunity for someone else to cut a female justice off. So over time, the women adopted the aggressive arguing style of their male colleagues.
But that doesn’t mean that this behavior helps on its own. Justice Sonia Sotomayor uses a minimum amount of qualifying statements in her oral arguments, but she’s still getting interrupted the most by male advocates arguing before her.
2. Get a sponsor
One of the best strategies is to have a boss — whether male or female — back up female employees. Glen Mazzarra, a showrunner for The Shield, got so sick of women on the writers’ team being shouted down that he imposed a rule that women writers cannot be interrupted.
To change this workplace culture, it needs to be enforced and modeled from the top. The researchers recommended that Chief Justice John Roberts needs to set an example to the public and to his colleagues by enforcing the rule that prohibits advocates from interrupting the justices.
3. Have someone at your back
Enlisting allies is crucial to end interruptions once and for all. Women in the Obama White House adopted a strategy of amplifying each others’ ideas so that they wouldn’t get interrupted. This doesn’t have to break up along gender lines; good bosses who observe team dynamics or male peers can also be supportive allies. The bottom line is that while every woman can handle herself, individual actions and skirmishes won’t change the world. Making interruptions a source of social shame in the office is more likely to end them.
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