Excuse Me, I Was Talking: Discussing the Interruption of Women with Dr. Meara Habashi

Interviews 2018

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Dr. Meara Habashi, assistant department head of management in the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University, has spent her career as a social psychologist focusing on gender differences in STEM interests and careers. As a member of the OBHR faculty and the Jane Brock-Wilson Women in Management Center, Habashi brings a unique perspective to preparing students for management roles in a gender diverse workplace. This past year, she shared her insight on a topic that gained national attention during the 2016 presidential debates and in an article published in Harvard Business Review about Supreme Court justices: the interruption of women.

Dr. Meara Habashi, PhDUnfortunately, this practice extends into the workplace, causing many women to be undermined in meetings, during presentations and even conversations around the water cooler. Though many of these instances are not malicious, it is important that both men and women (who also interrupt other women more frequently than they interrupt men), be aware of this cultural tendency and work strategically to curb it so that women may have equal opportunity for their voices to be heard in the workplace.

In this interview with Dr. Habashi, she outlines the struggles that women face regarding workplace interruptions, some of the factors that lead to the socialization of men and women that encourages and discourages interrupting, and some strategies to use when interrupted.


  1. In the 1970s paper, “Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation” by Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West, the researchers conclude that “men deny equal status to women and conversational partners with respect to rights to the full utilization of their turn and support for the development of topics.”

Based on your research, do you believe, given societal changes between the 1970s and 2017 that these statements still apply and, if so, have they changed in context, regressed, or progressed?

I think they still apply today. In fact, studies have found that even when you ask who is speaking more in a conversation, males perceive that women are speaking 75% of the time when they’re only actually speaking 25% of the time.

We saw a great example of gendered interruptions during the 2016 debates. There’s a lot of research on the fact that it exists, but there’s not as much research on intervention strategies and how to make it go away. People just believe that it’s gendered speech, and that’s how people talk.


  1. From your research and/or personal experiences, have you noticed gendered language contributing to power in cross-sex conversations or the number of times a woman is interrupted in relationship to the number of times a man is interrupted?

One of the ways that gendered communication is perceived is the politically incorrect way of talking about “mankind” and “manmade.” If you think of sports, you have the NBA and then you have the Women’s NBA. When you think about gendered language in that way, the idea becomes that the NBA is what we normally think of as basketball, and when you pull the WNBA out of that, then women don’t play basketball. They play a different kind of basketball. What is perceived as normative is the male gender and what we think of as lower status is female. That creates power differentials in conversations because now people who have the power are people we think of as the “norm.”

You can also talk about gender communication patterns – how males and females talk to one another. A lot of research shows when males and females tend to have equal power, or females are higher powered, these situations go away. It’s really not until females have higher power in a corporation or in a team that you see this difference go away. Even if you have two equally powered people, you still have that power difference.


  1. The article that was recently released about the number of times female Supreme Court justices are interrupted compared to their male counterparts raises some interesting questions about power between the sexes. What are some reasons you think this may happen in situations where men and women hold similar positions of power and levels of education?

I think one of the differences is that we’re taught to act differently. We don’t have twenty-year-olds on the Supreme Court, so, when you get to that point, you pretty well know your role in society. I’m not saying it doesn’t take a special woman to make it there, because it does, but if you look at Justice Ginsberg, she was interrupted a lot less than the other female justices. If you think about our stereotypes of the Supreme Court justices, she’s the competitive, aggressive and dominant one. She has these masculine characteristics that seem to make the interruption pattern go away. In a lot of these cases, I think you’re seeing that the gender gap is still there, but it can be attenuated a little bit by taking some of those masculine characteristics. I don’t like the idea that you have to be masculine to be treated equally, but that’s a clue into the idea that if you start acting like a male, you get treated like one.


  1. When do these types of interruptions of women begin and what are some social factors that create the circumstances for this to occur? How do these interruptions change as children move into adulthood and working situations, and how do they become either more or less malevolent and detrimental to women’s work abilities to succeed and assume management positions?

I don’t think there’s a lot of research on kid interruptions because kids interrupt, period. However, if you think about the research on education in the classroom, there’s a lot of research on how girls raise their hands to answer a question. I think you can take that as an early indication of socialized differences. There’s early research that when girls blurt out answers, they get in trouble. When boys blurt out answers, they don’t get in trouble. That’s been changing because when that research came out, you can imagine that the education system latched on and said, “okay.”


  1. How can women take a positive and proactive approach to addressing the issue of interruptions in the workplace?

It becomes a really fine line that females have to learn. For all gendered patterns in the workplace, how are you going to remain that likable person but still have your place at the table? I think gender communication patterns play a big role. If I’m letting him interrupt me all the time, then he looks like he’s more intelligent than me, more determined than me, and more powerful than me, and people take notice. When a woman starts to interrupt, or say, “I just said that,” then it looks like she’s being petty or mean.

There are strategies that women use that are a little bit more feminine. If he interrupts you, the best thing to do is say, “Excuse me, I was talking. Please let me finish.” That’s the most effective strategy because then people know, “Okay, I shouldn’t interrupt her. She’s going to call me out.”

One of the big things that’s been researched in all types of gender patterns at work is having a male ally. Talk to someone that you’re friends with and say, “Steve’s always interrupting me, maybe you could help me out.” So when Steve interrupts me next time, Joe stands up and says, “Well, I’m actually really interested in what Meara was saying, can you let her finish?”Iit’s fine for Joe to interrupt Steve, but it’s not fine for Meara to interrupt Steve. When it comes to gendered patterns, male allies become really important. If Steve takes credit for my idea, then Joe can step in and say, “Well, I think that’s exactly what Meara was just saying, let’s let her finish.”





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