How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech: Interrupt Men

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July 23 2014 2:09 PM

How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech: Interrupt Men

interrupting

About a month ago at work I overheard one woman complaining to another woman about a coworker's habit of interrupting everyone in meetings. "That's just how it is around here. The women listen, but the men interrupt in meetings all the time," one of them summed it up.

As a moderate interrupter myself—I'm sorry if I've interrupted you, I just get excited about what you're saying and I want to build on it and I lose track of the fact that it's not my turn and I know it's a bad habit—I started wondering if she was right. Do men interrupt more often than women?

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Search for "do men interrupt more than women" and you will find a variety of answers. The answers loosely break into two categories: 1. No, they don't, and 2. Yes, they do.

The empirical linguist in me got to thinking, and a few weeks ago I decided to figure it out.

The setup: I wanted to find situations where I could observe groups of men and women interacting without being a participant in the conversation myself. I am not always a talker, but when I am a talker, I am a seriously big talker and I am a definite interrupter. So I needed to find contexts where I wasn't going to be tempted to talk myself. I also didn't want to eavesdrop, so I needed to find contexts where I was a welcome listener.

I defined an interruption as any communication event where one person starts speaking before the other person has finished, whether or not the interrupter intended it.

The reality: I spend a lot of my weekday hours attending meetings in the office. I started looking at my calendar to identify meetings where I was mainly going to be present as a listener, where there were at least four other people in the room, and where the gender mix was close to even. Since I work in tech, this last one is easier said than done, so I wasn't able to strictly apply it, but I got close. 60% of the speakers in any given room were men, and 40% were women.

My goal was simple: Keep track of the interruption patterns across the conversation. I wanted to understand four things: how often interruptions happened across the board; whether men or women interrupted their colleagues more often; whether men or women were interrupted by their colleagues more often; and whether men and women are more likely to interrupt speakers of their own gender, speakers across gender, or some other pattern.

I took notes that covered fifteen hours of conversation over a four week period, and the conversations contained anywhere from 4-15 people (excluding me). It is totally possible that I missed some interruptions since I didn't record the meetings like I would have done in a rigorous field linguistics study. I take the findings with a grain of salt and you should too.

Still, what I discovered was interesting.

People interrupt a lot.

And the more people who are in a conversation, the more interrupting there is—until some peak rate is reached and holds steady no matter how many additional people are added into the conversation.

I noted 314 interruption events spread over 900 minutes of conversation, which means that collectively people interrupted each other once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds. But the actual interruption rate (y-axis) correlated closely with the number of active participants in the conversation (x-axis):

interruption_rate_figure_1

This is interesting because it suggests that there are only so many interruptions that a conversation will tolerate before it's not a conversation anymore. Keep in mind that all the conversations I observed were formal work meetings where people mostly adhered to a single conversation thread; it is very likely that in a more informal setting, many of the larger groups would have split themselves into smaller groups having multiple conversations. In fact, these results make me wonder if 7 people is the natural tipping point for that kind of splitting in social groups.

Men interrupt more than women overall.

All told and no other factors considered, men accounted for 212 of the 314 total interruptions, about two thirds of the total. Among the individuals I observed, 60% were men. That means that if men and women had shown the same rate of interruption, we would expect to find that 188.4 of the interruptions came from men. We actually see 212. The men I observed interrupted twice as often as the women did.

So there you have it: At least in this male-heavy tech setting, men do interrupt more often than women.

Men are almost three times as likely to interrupt women as they are to interrupt other men.

Here's where things start to get really interesting. Of the 212 total interruptions from men that I logged, 149 of them—that's 70% of the total—were interruptions where women had been previously speaking. Men do interrupt other men, but far less often.

These numbers are a little worse than they look in terms of balance since the rooms had only 40% women to begin with. Although I didn't track gender representation in overall speaking turns (I only tracked interruptions), I believe women in this setting are taking far fewer than the 40% share of speaking turns that they are allotted. That would make these numbers even more skewed than they already appear; whenever women take a speaking turn, they are getting interrupted.

Women interrupt each other constantly, and almost never interrupt men.

Of the 102 interruptions from women that I logged, a staggering 89 of them were instances of women interrupting other women. That is to say, 87% of the time that women interrupt, they are interrupting each other.

Let's pause and dwell on this for a sec: In fifteen hours of conversation that included 314 total interruptions, I observed a total of 13 examples of women interrupting male speakers. That is less than once per hour, in a climate where interruptions occur an average of once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds. Does anyone else think this is a big deal?

The more senior the speaker, the more they interrupt.

Since everyone in the study works for the same company, they all share an explicit professional leveling system. The graph below illustrates interruption rate across professional levels. On the x-axis, A represents the most junior level and E the most senior. Speakers are not distributed evenly across levels, with higher concentrations of speakers in levels B, C, and D. The y-axis represents interruption rate in terms of interruptions/hour as a means of normalizing for the uneven population distribution across levels. Recall that the rate across all speakers is close to 21 interruptions/hour.

interruption_rate_by_seniority_figure_2

There are no senior women who aren't interrupting their male colleagues.

I mean literally there are none. Not one. Nada.

This one is a big deal so let's dive into it. There were very few women overall in Levels D and E; I am in those levels, but we can't count me since I didn't attempt to log my own interruptions. That leaves three women remaining that I observed in those levels as compared to twelve men, which is not surprising but which starts to make me feel strange about this study in a number of respects.

Only 13 of the 314 total interruptions logged across 15 hours of speech were instances of women interrupting men. All 13 of those instances came from this set of three women. Probably not too surprising since we've just looked at data showing that senior people are the most likely to interrupt.

But it goes further: Not only do these three women interrupt everyone, gender- and level-agnostic, they represent three of the four biggest interrupters in the study. Their rates of interruption/hour are, respectively, 35, 34, and 32, with one male colleague in Level E coming in at 34 and literally everyone else in every level showing a lower rate. What's more, the next closest woman in the study, a Level B with an interruption rate of 27 interruptions/hour, trails far behind.

Here's how the top ten interrupters break down in terms of level/gender identity and their interruptions/hour rate:

top_ten_interrupters_figure_3

The results suggest that women don't advance in their careers beyond a certain point without learning to interrupt, at least in this male-dominated tech setting. This is really striking, and starts to put directional data behind the stereotype whereby strong female leaders are often dismissed with the pejoratives bossy, unpleasant, and bitchy. As a senior woman in technology who has at times been called all of those things, I'd like to say I'm surprised. I'm not.

There's lots more to investigate here. How much does the male-centric nature of the tech setting bias these results? Like, if someone did the same observations during faculty meetings at an elementary school, would they find the inverse pattern? What happens in single-sex environments? Do we see different patterns for supportive interruptions (e.g. clarifying questions, statements of agreement and affirmation) and intrusive interruptions (e.g. conversational hijacks, direct disagreement and confrontation)? These are all terrific questions and worth further investigation in a recorded study.

But I'll tell you this: Not a single woman in technology that I know is surprised by these results. While the academic linguistic community has appropriately responded with suggestions for follow-ups and rigorous methodology since I first posted about this on Language Log, women in tech have mostly responded, "Yeah, duh."

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.

Kieran Snyder holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and has spent the last decade leading teams of software designers and engineers. She is a mom, an occasional writer, and she blogs about language, women in technology, kids, and careers at Jenga One Week at a Time.

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