By Molly Freeman
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Ask any woman–a friend, a colleague, a relative–when she was last interrupted by a man while she was in the middle of speaking. Chances are, she’ll have an instance in mind, even if it takes her a minute to respond, and it will be relatively recent.
Though it may be assumed that men interrupting women is a conscious misogynist decision, it actually isn’t. If you were to ask a man the last time he interrupted a woman while she was in the middle of speaking, chances are he may not be able to come up with an answer.
That’s because men interrupting women isn’t a conscious decision. It’s an act that both sexes are taught is acceptable and normal from a young age. Our parents and first teachers are the initial influences who establish that the behavior is accepted.
A study of children ages 2-5 found that parents interrupted their daughters more frequently than their sons. Additionally, fathers were more likely than mothers to talk to both their sons and daughters at the same time. Jennifer Coates, an English professor at the University of Roehampton, explained what these practices teach young children.
“It seems that fathers try to control conversation more than mothers,” said Coates. “And both parents try to control conversation more with daughters than with sons. The implicit message to girls is that they are more interruptible and that their right to speak is less than that of boys.”
Parents hold different standards for when girls and boys should be quiet and polite; this is reinforced through praise from those outside the family unit. Other family members, teachers, or even strangers may compliment parents for how quiet and respectful young girls are, or how curious and opinionated young boys seem. At the very least, if boys are misbehaving, their behavior is written off as typical.
These biases are carried over and reinforced within classroom settings from the time children begin their schooling. Teachers encourage boys more than girls within the classroom, even if they aren’t conscious of it. According to research, teachers’ eye movement focuses more on boys than girls, especially when looking for a student to answer a question.
These conversational habits of men speaking more than women become ingrained in everyone and they carry over into adulthood. In fact, men and women are so commonly taught that these behaviors are normal that even when women only speak 30 percent of the time, they’re thought to be dominating the conversation.
Soraya Chemaly, a writer who tackles gender politics in media, called this belief “listener bias” and discussed how it impacts women in the public sphere.
“This is why conservative media commentators who perceive women’s public expression as ‘dangerously anti-male’ can talk about ‘feminized atmospheres’ and ‘too much estrogen’ and not face outrage for misleading millions about the nature of reality,” wrote Chemaly in Salon.
However, to say that only men suffer from listener bias is incorrect. Dr. Jessica Kirkpatrick, a data scientist and writer, attempted to equalize a classroom conversation after reading about gender dynamics in such a setting. A colleague of Dr. Kirkpatrick observed and kept track of those she gave discussion time to, and the results surprised Dr. Kirkpatrick.
“In this exercise, I knew I was being observed and I was trying to be extra careful to equally represent all students–but I STILL gave a disproportionate amount of discussion time to the white male students in my classroom (controlling for the overall distribution of genders and races in the class),” Kirkpatrick wrote for the Women in Astronomy blog. “I was shocked. It felt like I was giving a disproportionate amount of time to my white female and non-white students.”
Though it may seem from Dr. Kirkpatrick’s experience that we may never be able to break down and move past these conversation habits, Chemaly suggested on The Huffington Post some steps everyone can take to overcome listener bias. The most important of her steps is for everyone to stop teaching these biases to children from a young age. However, it’s also important for everyone to be cognizant of their biases and challenge why they exist.
For a more in-depth discussion of Jessica Kirkpatrick’s piece, tune in to The Hash.