Can we start with one observation? No one likes meetings. No one.
But meetings do serve a purpose besides being incredibly awkward ways to share information; they’re also valuable tools to observe human behavior and dominance. (The Harvard Business Review has even devoted an entire topic page to meetings and the eternal question of how to make them less terrible).
One of the quiet phenomena of the office meeting — one that men usually don’t even realize is happening— is that women are frequently interrupted or their ideas passed over when they speak up.
This is a problem because it’s rude, of course, but also for deeper reasons: interruptions are really a display of power, and whoever gets interrupted is being shown to have lower status. Interrupting someone is like giving them the corporate version of a wedgie on the playground at school — even if that’s not what the interrupter intends.
“Interruptions can be used to display or gain dominance,” Adrienne Hancock, a George Washington University linguist who studied the phenomenon, told the New York Times.
Women get interrupted more often — by everyone
Science backs up the “woman, interrupted” phenomenon: A 1992 study said female physicians were interrupted more often than their male counterparts in doctor-patient conversations. In the tech industry, Kieran Snyder, a tech startup CEO, found in a casual study that men were three times as likely to interrupt women as they were to interrupt other men.
Hancock’s own 2014 study from George Washington University showed that men are 33% more likely to interrupt women than they are to interrupt other men.
Even women interrupt women more often, the George Washington study found. Snyder would agree: he found that when women interrupted a conversation at all, 89% of the time they were interrupting other women.
The inability of women to finish a sentence is so prevalent, even in the highest-level rooms in government, that a group of senior female advisers in the Obama administration created a strategy to stop it: every woman at the table amplified the ideas of the women who spoke before her.
Before you can fix a problem, of course, you have to measure it. Enter technology.
A new app measures every interruption in conversation
To celebrate International Women’s Day, advertising agency BETC SãoPaulo created the Woman Interrupted app to raise awareness of the too-often ignored phenomenon, which Internet wags have disparagingly dubbed “manterruption.”
The mobile app, which became available for download on iOS and Android on Monday, uses your smartphone’s microphone to record how often women are interrupted.
The app has one flaw: it goes one way. It tracks how often men interrupt women, but not yet how often women are interrupting men, or women interrupting other women.
Here’s how it works: When you download the app, it will ask your gender and calibrate the pitch of your voice, so that it can tally how often men’s voices are overlapping with women’s voices in conversations.
After the recording, the app will analyze the conversation and may give its female users some hard truths like: “You were interrupted by a man 8X.”
Gal Barradas, the founder of BETC SãoPaulo, explained why the ad agency was inspired to make the app in a press release: “At first glance, it may seem like a small problem, but it reflects deeper issues of gender inequality at work and in society. The app is a way of showing that, in fact, the interruption is real and alarming.”
It’s apparent even in pop culture. Great recent interruptions in history abound.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was interrupted by Donald Trump 51 times during the first presidential debate. In 2009, Kanye West famously grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift during her MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech, and declared to the world, “Imma let you finish, but…”
The collective data will go towards a larger cause of measuring the phenomenon of women, interrupted: BETC wants to use the app to create statistics of where and when women around the world are not being heard.
What to do about being interrupted
Let’s say you use Woman Interrupted and discover that you’re being interrupted by colleagues an alarming amount of the time.
How do you stop this behavior? Here are some good tips.
Someone needs to have your back. Preventing interruptions takes vigilance — the lesson that those senior Obama staffers learned when they supported each other in meetings.
For public speaking opportunities, like panels, Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, advises preventative measures like asking the moderator to make sure you’re to invited to make a point.
One of those allies can be a boss. Leaders also set an example for employees. Glen Mazzara, a showrunner for the “The Shield,” instituted a no-interruptions policy for all of his writers after he noticed his female writers kept getting interrupted in pitch meetings.
Stay calm and push back
Journalist Soledad O’Brien said when she is interrupted, she makes sure she doesn’t lose her cool: “I stay very calm and don’t rush. I take up time and space and speak forcefully.”
As part of her “Feminist Fight Club” book promotion, Jessica Bennett created a video on how to combat interruptions in a meeting.
When the offender starts interrupting, the woman leading the meeting starts a game of “verbal chicken” and keeps talking louder until the interrupter forfeits.
Ka-pow. Woman: 1, Interrupter: 0.
Interruption is, at its core, about power — which is why it feels terrible to be interrupted. Unsurprisingly, women who rank higher feel more free to interrupt men and women both, Snyder found in his informal study of tech meetings. Even if women don’t necessarily like being interrupted, once they rise within the ranks they’re more likely to do it themselves.