Participation in a panel on Silicon Valley gender and diversity issues should be an easy way for a white, male tech mogul to win a few brownie points. But Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt is probably ruing the day he agreed to take part in such a conference at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
During a conference this week, Schmidt repeatedly interrupted U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, the sole female panelist on stage with him during the talk. Then, he was reprimanded by an audience member who also happened to be one of his own employees.
Judith Williams, Google’s global diversity manager, raised her hand and asked Schmidt an uncomfortable question: “Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men, I’m wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times.” The audience burst into applause, and the Internet followed suit. “Hint: don’t manterrupt when a woman is talking about corporate diversity” snarked Charlotte Alter at TIME. “Google executive Eric Schmidt, man, makes total ass of himself at SXSW” blared The Verge. Katie McDonough at Salon called Schmidt’s behavior “equal parts hilarious and depressing.”
Women are fed up with being interrupted. And there’s data dating back to the 1970s that backs up that exasperation. “A tremendous amount of academic research (as well as personal experiences) support the claim that men interrupt women more in meetings (and that women interrupt women more),” Stanley Deetz, a communications scholar and author of books like Managing Interpersonal Communication, told Women in the World in an email.
In a seminal 1975 study, Don Zimmerman and Candace West, sociologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, systematically tracked conversational interruptions by men and women. They loitered in public places like coffee shops and drug stores with a tape recorder, surreptitiously recording any two-person conversations they overheard. (They ended up with a sample of 31 dialogues: 10 conversations between two men, 10 between two women, and 11 between men and women.) Their results were staggering: in the mixed-sex conversations, men were responsible for all but one of the 48 interruptions they overheard.
Researchers continue to confirm–and refine–these findings. In a study just last year, Adrienne Hancock, a linguist at George Washington University, recruited 20 male and 20 female volunteers and had each volunteer engage in two short conversations, one with a man and one with a woman.
Though her results were not as stark as Zimmerman and West’s, she also found that women were interrupted far more often than men. If a man’s conversational partner was female, he logged an average of 2.1 interruptions over the course of a three-minute dialogue; if his counterpart was male, however, that number dropped to 1.8. Women, too, were less likely to interrupt men than to cut off other women. In each conversation, women interrupted an average of 2.9 times if their partner was female, and just once if their partner was male.
In a less rigorous but still relevant new study, Kieran Snyder, a tech startup CEO who also holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, designed an experiment to analyze gendered speech patterns in the tech industry. Over the course of a four-week period, she sat in on dozens of meetings in her office, observing a total of 900 minutes of conversation. She tallied 314 interruptions–an average of one every two minutes and 51 seconds–and discovered that men not only interrupted twice as often as women, but were nearly three times as likely to interrupt women as they were to interrupt other men. And women also seemed far more reluctant to interrupt men. Eighty-seven percent of the times women interrupted, they were interrupting another woman.
So what’s going on when a man interrupts a woman? Is he dismissing her? Verbally overpowering her? It’s not necessarily that simple; there are a variety of factors at play, experts say.
“Interruptions can be used to display or gain dominance,” Hancock wrote in an email. A man may be more likely to see conversation as “a competitive game,” wrote Deetz, while “the woman see discussions as being collaborative, hence expects and gives space for interruption.” Or it might reflect something more pernicious. “Men are used to talking more in other contexts and women being in lower status positions and this bleeds into the meeting [or tech panel] context.”
But we can’t always jump to the conclusion that an interruption is a sign of disrespect or dismissal. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and the author of several books, including You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, argues that sometimes, interruptions just reflect different conversational styles or cultural backgrounds.
When “we hear one voice going and we hear another voice start, we don’t want to jump too quickly on that bandwagon–[assuming] that the first voice is the victim and the second voice is the villain,” Tannen told Women in the World in a phone interview. When Tannen compared the conversational styles of New Yorkers and Californians for her first book, she discovered that incidents that one party interpreted as an interruption seemed to like a natural transition to the other. “Often, the New Yorkers were perceived as interrupting when they had not intended to interrupt,” she explained. Fast-talking New Yorkers interpreted any pause as a sign that the speaker was finished,her results showed.
And sometimes, interruption is a sign of intimacy. “I may interrupt my best friend more than I interrupt a new acquaintance, regardless of their genders,” wrote Hancock. “We would need to measure much more than [the] number of times a person interrupts to know whether the person was trying to be dominant or trying to be casual and comfortable … One explanation for why female-to-female dyads have the most interruptions is that females achieve a familiar/friend status more quickly.”
Female-to-female dyads, however, are unlikely to occur in the tech industry. According to recent statistics, a mere five percent of tech startups are owned by women. A stunning 96 percent of venture capitalists are men. There’s good reason to be extra-sensitive to any gender issue in the bro-dominated field of tech.