As I Was Saying…

June 3, 2020


As the Covid-19 pandemic rages, many of us have learned to work virtually, engaging in teleconferencing and staying glued to our digital devices. The U.S. Supreme Court has done likewise.

On May 4, because of the pandemic, the high court kicked off an historic two-week teleconference session that was largely considered a success. But guess what? A report compiled soon after the session was completed found that women justices participating in the first-ever teleconference hearing were interrupted significantly more than their male colleagues and were given less overall speaking time.

Are we surprised? Uh, no. I’d wager that each and every woman reading this blog post has been interrupted countless times over their lives by male colleagues at work, by male friends in social situations, by male students in classrooms, and by (dare I say it?) male partners at home.

It is a universal phenomenon – and even the (three) women who currently serve on the august high court are not exempt.

Academic studies and numerous anecdotes make it clear, says Susan Chira of The New York Times, “that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is a nearly universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men.” (The current U.S. Supreme Court has six men and three women.)

It’s a similar situation in corporate offices, town meetings, school board meetings, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress. In short, it’s everywhere.

Back at the U.S. Supreme Court last month, University of Michigan assistant professor Leah Litman, who analyzed the high court’s 10 telephone arguments, found that Chief Justice John Roberts, who was tasked with policing each of the justice’s time limits, interrupted the other justices during question periods 11 times, nine of those times interrupting women.

“The interruptions were markedly gendered and ideological,” Litman told Law 360, the legal news service. Earlier studies conducted in 2016 and 2017 also showed that the women justices were interrupted more and were less likely to be allowed to speak when interrupted.

In The New York Times article written by Chira, women in a wide range of industries offered hundreds of personal examples of this phenomenon. “My female boss told me she needed to allow each man to interrupt her four times before protesting in a meeting. If she protested more often, there were more problems,” a woman named Joyce Lionarons said. Another respondent said: “I can’t even count the number of times I’ve witnessed a woman being interrupted and talked over by a man, only to hear him repeat the same ideas she was trying to put forward. I’d say I see this happen…two to three times a week? At least?”

How do we change this? By increasing the number of women in the places where decisions are being made. When there are more women in the room — boardrooms and courtrooms and city hall rooms and legislative rooms alike – women speak up. When women are no longer outnumbered, they likely won’t be interrupted or spoken over. Numbers matter.

Let’s hope that Justice Roberts reads the report published in Law 360 and modifies his future behavior. Of course, when the high court becomes majority female, we’ll no longer have this problem.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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