Manterrupting is everywhere. And one potential fix may be as simple as it is uncomfortable: Start talking like a man.

That's one conclusion that could be drawn from a new paper that examined transcripts of oral arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to see which justices got interrupted the most, and which did the interrupting. The research, by Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers, both of the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, shows that even when women join the ranks of some of the most powerful people in the world--the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court--they still are disproportionately interrupted by men.

"On average, women constituted 22 percent of the court, yet 52 percent of interruptions were directed at them," write the paper's authors on SCOTUSBlog.

The researchers also found that as more women were named to the court, the male justices interrupted them at increasing rates. Even lawyers arguing before the court--known as advocates--joined in. Court rules strictly forbid interruptions of justices by advocates.

In 1990, Sandra Day O'Connor was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. That year, 35.7 percent of interruptions were directed at her. In 2002, there were two women on the Supreme Court, and together they received 45.3 percent of interruptions. By 2015 there were three women on the Supreme Court, and they were subject to 66 percent of all interruptions. In 2015, the average woman on the court was interrupted 3.9 times as often as the average man.

"This lends support to research results in other areas that show that men react against women entering their domain in more than token numbers by increasing their aggressiveness against the women," write the researchers. They cite work by psychologist Lyn Kathlene, who studied transcripts of state legislative committee hearings. Kathlene found that as the share of women on the committee increased, "men become more verbally aggressive with interruptions and tend to control the hearings."

Getting heard

The researchers write that women's attempts to frame their questions often unwittingly give their male colleagues an opportunity to interrupt them. Women justices were more likely to begin a question with "May I ask ..." or "Could I ask ..." or "Excuse me ..." or even simply the advocate's name. But those framing words gave the male justices an opportunity to jump right in and ask their own question, or to redirect the conversation.

Twenty years after she joined the bench, the researchers write, O'Connor had largely dropped those "framing" words from her questions. By the court's 2015 term, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had also begun to ask her questions more directly. "That [polite] style of questioning is not the cause of the interruptions but just one means of opportunity," write the researchers, who note that both O'Connor and Ginsburg were interrupted less over time. "We expect ... women can at least reduce interruptions--albeit not down to the level at which men are interrupted--by changing the language to avoid this kind of framing."

During their time on the court, O'Connor, Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan cut their use of this sort of language by half. Sonia Sotomayor did it faster--by the end of her first term, she had cut so-called polite phrasing from 75 percent of her questions to 20 percent, putting her in league with the male justices.

In Sotomayor's case, abandoning excess politesse doesn't seem to have helped all that much. Sotomayor was actually consistently interrupted by male advocates, who aren't supposed to have the standing to interrupt anyone. That shows, among other things, that the chief justice isn't doing his job in keeping advocates from interrupting, and is instead tolerating bad behavior from these men. (Women advocates attempted to interrupt a justice only twice in the entire span of the research, and both times, it was Sotomayor).

The frequent and continued interruptions of Sotomayor, who is Latina, suggest that race may also play a part in this dynamic, although the researchers did not address this topic. (Clarence Thomas, who is black and the only other person of color to serve as a justice during the time period researched, is famously quiet during oral arguments and thus doesn't appear in most of the findings.)

"The justices tend to interrupt those who are least like them, be it division by gender or ideology," write the researchers. But given the racial composition of the court, the ways in which the justices are "least like" each other could certainly extend to race. And it seems entirely possible that, even within the most rarefied ranks of academia and the what we consider the intelligentsia, unconscious bias is alive and well.

Published on: Apr 12, 2017