It is dreadfully unfair, disturbing and belittling and concerningly unproductive. But according to many women in the workplace it is behaviour that continues to occur and may even be on the rise. We are talking about manterruptions – the unsavoury practice of male bosses who regularly interrupt, talk over, shut down or even penalise women who speak up in workplace meetings and forums.
Mounting anecdotal evidence reveals that women are speaking up in meetings only to have their male bosses’ voices boom right over the top and effectively shut them down. In findings that will leave many men gobsmacked, new Harvard Business School research confirms what women have suspected for some time: when it comes to workplace meetings, women are far more likely to be interrupted or shut down by their male bosses than men.
On the international front, the term manterruption shot to prominence three years ago during the US 2016 presidential debates. During those debates, Donald Trump consistently cut across Hillary Clinton’s sentences, something not missed by the barrage of television cameras and microphones – and leading to the now President being labelled a manterrupter.
Closer to home and on the local political front, Senator Penny Wong is said to have developed great skill in expertly shutting down those male politicians who seek to interrupt when parliament is sitting. Let us be clear up front. Not all male bosses manterrupt and many more would be quietly horrified to even think they are guilty of this practice.
The truth is there are women bosses who interrupt their female colleagues during meetings more than they interrupt men. And at times all bosses need to interrupt others – both men and women – who veer off track, have already made their point or are attacking others around the table in an aggressive way.
That is hardly manterruption and most likely the sign of a skilled meeting chair. The blunt reality is that interruptions can sometimes make meetings flow more effectively. But if men are honest, they will admit that real manterruption probably starts in the kindy classroom and continues right through to the corporate boardroom – and it is hardly a form of desirable interruption.
While interruptions of any sort are rude and aggravating, they are also a problematic show of power by suggesting the interrupted is of a lower status in the office. In fact, some describe a manterruption as the corporate equivalent of a schoolyard wedgie, where a power-hungry school kid shows everyone, they are boss by humiliating one of their classmates.
Manterrupters come in various shapes and forms.
There is the blocker who resists the opportunity for anyone else to speak by taking up the majority of the airspace with his own voice, the bypasser who acts as if others are invisible and talks over the top of them, and the eyeballer who stares down anyone who looks like they have something to say.
But the worst kind is the male boss who shoots down a female colleague for sharing an idea during a meeting – only to have that idea resurface as his own within the next few working days. You would think women might take the initiative in trying to stem the rising tide of manterruptions in our workplaces by standing up to male bosses who incessantly shut them down.
The reality is, of course, that pointing out to a manterrupter you have been interrupted mid-sentence – and that you would like to continue with your line of thinking for a moment – rarely goes down well, particularly with power-driven bosses.
But there is hope in sight for women frustrated and concerned by the seemingly endless stream of manterruptions. An app called “Women Interrupted” is available to track the number of times a woman’s voice is interrupted by a man’s in a workplace meeting. Produced to raise awareness of the existence of manterruptions as a workplace phenomenon, the data from the app (but not the actual conversation) can easily be shared with others who attended a particular meeting – including the boss – to make the point.
The only drawback is that the app does not record data to reveal how many times women interrupt women or women interrupt men. It is impossible to predict whether manterruption will ever disappear from our workplaces. It is therefore important to find ways to remedy what many describe as a dire situation.
The solution starts with male bosses becoming aware that when it comes to ideas being shared, debated and discussed in the workplace, many men have a propensity to break in on or shut down women. When men call themselves out as manterrupters, they shine a spotlight on a significant form of unconscious bias in our workplaces – and this represents a huge leap towards closing the workplace interruption gap.
And if that fails, perhaps we should simply encourage more womenterruption – it might serve to stop manterrupters in their tracks, or at the very least slow them down.
Professor Gary Martin is the chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA.