Woman Interrupted: The Pernicious Problem That’s Not Just in Our Heads

On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his contacts with Russian officials in Washington D.C. and his conversations with the President about the Russia investigation or about former F.B.I. Director James B. Comey.

The hearing has been called “at times fiery” and Sessions’ testimony “highly contentious.” Indeed, several Democratic senators engaged in some testy back-and-forth with Sessions, with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden saying that Sessions’ answers did not “pass the smell test” and New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich declaring that Sessions “[is] obstructing.”

But the grilling of Sessions that has probably received the most attention is that of California Senator Kamala Harris, a junior senator and former California attorney general. Senator Harris was questioning Sessions about his many non-answer answers at the hearing. Sessions claimed he was not answering due to long-standing Justice Department policy. Senator Harris pushed Sessions on this policy.

The New York Times described Senator Harris’ questioning style as “a rapid-fire . . . pace more commonly seen in courtrooms—a style that at times has her interrupting witnesses.” During her questioning, she was interrupted by both Arizona Senator John McCain and by North Carolina Senator Richard M. Burr, the chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both men suggested that Sessions be allowed to answer. This was the second time in two weeks that Senator Harris has been interrupted by Senators Burr and McCain. Last week, she was interrupted by them while questioning Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. (Following the Sessions testimony, Jason Miller, a panelist on CNN, referred to Senator Harris as “hysterical,” most certainly a gendered analysis. CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers called out Miller’s gendered statement and pointed out how Miller believed neither Senators Harris (a woman of color) nor Wyden (a man) were “trying to get to the bottom of answers,” yet Miller called only Senator Harris “hysterical.”)

Earlier this year, during a Senate debate about Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was interrupted and then formally rebuked by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King about then-U.S. attorney Jeff Sessions, who had been nominated at that time for a federal judgeship. The letter had criticized Sessions for using “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.” (The Senate rejected Sessions’ nomination for that federal judgeship.) Later, three male senators read the same letter on the Senate floor, and none were rebuked.

Maybe Harris’ and Warren’s treatment is all about rules of decorum in the Senate. Decorum may be part of it; more than that, though, it appears to be the ages-old pernicious pattern of men interrupting women. It happens to most women, much of the time, in both personal and professional settings.

It’s not that women talk more. Research has shown that men talk as much as women and sometimes more, depending on the setting. And in professional settings, men tend to dominate conversation.

Interruption is a power move. And especially when such interruptions occur in professional settings, the effect—consciously or not—is to silence women’s voices and undermine their presence and their power.

It happens to everyday professional women. It happens to women in the Senate. And it happens to the women on the Supreme Court of the United States.

If interruption is a power move, one might think that the more power a woman has, the less likely it would be that she is interrupted. And there’s no more powerful legal position than being a Supreme Court justice. But a recent study by Professor Tonja Jacobi and J.D. candidate Dylan Schweers from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law concludes that the women justices on the Supreme Court “are just like other women: talked over by their male colleagues.” And talked over by male advocates, decorum notwithstanding.

In the 2015 term, almost 66% “of all interruptions on the [C]ourt were directed at the three women on the bench.” For example, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was interrupted 15 times by Justice Anthony Kennedy, 14 times by Justice Samuel Alito, and 12 times by Chief Justice John Roberts. Jacobi and Schweers noted that “[o]nly two male justices [were interrupted] by another justice at the double-digit level, despite there being twice as many men as women on the [C]ourt.”

And not only were the women justices interrupted by the men justices at disproportional rates, they were also interrupted by men who advocated before the Court. Even though advocates are supposed to stop speaking the moment a justice begins to speak, in 2015, about 10% of the interruptions were male advocates interrupting the women justices, most especially Justice Sotomayor. Women advocates before the Court logged precisely zero interruptions.

Justices Kagan and Sotomayor are among the more junior members of the Court, which Jacobi and Schweer thought might account for the level of interruptions they experienced. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is more senior and has fewer interruptions than Justices Kagan or Sotomayor (though she is often interrupted; for example, 11 times by Justice Kennedy in 2015). While seniority was statistically significant, its significance was dwarfed by the effect of gender. They concluded, “Gender is approximately 30 times more influential than seniority.” (Interestingly, ideology also mattered: conservative justices tended to interrupt liberal justices more than twice as often as liberals interrupted them, and advocates tended to interrupt liberal justices more than three times as much as they did the conservative justices.)

This pattern is not limited solely to the Roberts Court. Jacobi and Schweers also analyzed the 1990 and 2002 terms, when there were fewer women on the Court. The results are the same: “a consistently gendered pattern” of women justices being interrupted.

Jacobi and Schweers found that, over time, women justices tended to change their questions to avoid being interrupted as much. The women justices did this by dropping polite, prefatory phrases like, “Excuse me,” or “May I ask,” or beginning with the advocate’s name. In short, they began talking more like the men. But not exactly like them. Jacobi and Schweers indicate that, “after more than 30 years on the Court, [Justice] Ginsburg still uses polite language more than either [Justices] Kennedy or Alito did immediately upon joining the [C]ourt.”

All of this matters, of course. Jacobi and Schweers point to specifics in the context of oral arguments at the Supreme Court:

Oral arguments shape case outcomes. This pattern of gender disparity in interruptions could create a marked different in the relative degree of influence between the male and female justices. Furthermore, oral arguments serve other purposes, including: focusing the justices’ minds, helping them gather information to reach decisions as close as possible to their desired outcomes, and providing an opportunity to communicate and persuade their colleagues. When a justice in interrupted, her point is left unaddressed, and her ability to influence the outcome of a case or the framing of another justice’s reasoning is undermined.

As I said earlier, when such interruptions occur in professional settings, the effect—consciously or not—is to silence women’s voices and undermine their presence and their power. Whether it be Senator Harris; Senator Warren; Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, or Sotomayor; or the woman next to you in a meeting, let her speak.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ellen Henak

    Do you know of any studies about the handling of interruptions? When interrupted, are men less likely to cede the floor? I am wondering if there is a bigger pay-off for men who interrupt women and, if so, whether a refusal to cede the floor is called for–at least in some instances.

  2. Lisa A. Mazzie

    Ellen, that’s a very good question and I don’t know of any studies off-hand. I’ll have to look it up.

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