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How to deal with everyday sexism at meetings

Category: International Women's day

There's an app that can help you track the number of times men speak over women in meetings. It's called Woman, Interrupted. Load it on your phone and place it on the table. It doesn't record – it simply tracks when a woman's voice is interrupted by a man's. There are limits to this app. It's not completely inclusive of women and men whose voices pitch outside the norm. But it can provide a rough, data-led way to show your boss the problem. Here are a few ways that you, and your boss, can put a stop to man-terruption. And if you're ready for bosses that take gender equality seriously, VERCIDA offers a directory of ethical employers.

Why do men interrupt?

According to gender and communication expert Deborah Tannen, men interrupt women to achieve, and determine, power and status. Men are socialised to talk this way from kindergarten forward. In British and American societies, speaking is considered a position of power, so men try to do it lots. Women, socialised to achieve and determine interpersonal connection, interrupt less because they want to avoid appearing rude.

How to combat man-terruption

The problems this causes at work are, at root, systemic. It's not the job of an individual worker to undo centuries of patriarchy. But you can short circuit the man-terrupters. For example:

  • Gently call out their impoliteness by politely asking them to wait until you've finished your points. This makes it much harder for the interrupter to press on.
  • Use shorter sentences. This may seem counterintuitive, but shortening pauses for breath gives less chance for men to interrupt. Use fewer words that signal uncertainty in your speech – say “know” instead of “think,” for example.
  • Be aware of body language. A recent study noted that men interrupt women more when they're smiling or looking away. Serious, direct body language helps prevent interruption.

Amplification: women supporting each other

Alongside interruptions by men, women face other patterns of being sidelined in meetings. An idea from a woman can go unacknowledged, or men will even take credit for her idea. One strategy women can take is called amplification. This strategy was made famous by women staffers who worked for President Obama. If a woman offers an idea and it's unacknowledged, other women repeat it and name its author. This strategy went viral in 2016. A workplace with a good women's network is a good place to encourage such a strategy. It works best when many women at an organisation start using it.

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