Women get interrupted more than men and men interrupt women more than they interrupt other men. This is a well-researched and well-documented fact, but what do you do about it when it’s happening to you? Michelle is in a traditionally male-dominated field as an Associate Professor at a North American University in the Engineering and Architecture department. In this Ask Us Anything episode, lisa and Debra address these frustrations about being interrupted by a male colleague. They offer suggestions for how Michelle can move forward professionally, and in a way that honors her values.
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Ask Us Anything: Michelle
Michelle Is Repeatedly Interrupted By A Male Colleague And Not Sure If/How To Address It
Welcome back to our readers for another Ask Us Anything. lisa, how are you doing?
I’m doing great. Debra, how are you doing?
I’m doing great. It’s good to see you. You are in a warm place. I’m in a very cold place.
I’m in Miami. Don’t worry. I will be back in the cold in a couple of days. I will suffer with you.
That makes me feel better. Misery loves company, as they say. We’ve got more snow. My kids were thrilled. I thought I was going to cry. Let’s get into our Ask Us Anything. We have had someone come to us. Her name is Michelle. Michelle is an Associate Professor at a major North American University in the Engineering and Architecture Program. This is a very professional academic environment. She teaches a couple of different programs within this school and has been doing that for a number of years. She has come to us with frustration that she is having around a male colleague who is a tenured professor and a fair bit older than her as well. She is not a newbie. She is more of a mid-career.
When you start going against your own values, that’s when frustration starts to rise.
The question that she is opposing is that there has been a repeated pattern with this colleague of hers that has become a little bit annoying to her and some of her colleagues, especially the female colleagues, because this person tends to interrupt a lot. This is something that we do see. This is something that has been researched a fair bit, that women do get interrupted much more than men do, and men interrupt women more than they interrupt other men. This is a real-life problem that women experience.
She told me a couple of stories about this happening. The most recent one was she was in a meeting that was being facilitated by the chair of the department, who is the leader. Michelle proposed an idea for a challenge that they were discussing. She was talking through the idea, and she was interrupted by this professor again. She got visibly frustrated this time by it. Sometimes this happens when things have accumulated a little bit because our frustration is mounting but we haven’t necessarily dealt with it, voiced it or processed it fully, so now it’s starting to accumulate.
What happened in this particular meeting is she pushed herself away from the desk and crossed her arms. She was a little bit visibly frustrated. What ended up happening was the chair of the department ended up agreeing. The professor was saying, “All these reasons why it has worked, and let her finish.” When it came around the chair, he said, “I think this could work.” They ended up agreeing on this idea but at that point, Michelle felt as though it had been taken away from her in a way. She was frustrated about the way it was handled. The interruption was not addressed, nor has it been addressed because this is a pattern that she has been seeing.
I would like to add one extra piece to this story, and then we are going to come back to this because what Michelle is asking is, “Should she address this?” That’s the one thing like, “Should you try to live with this or deal with it in your own way? If she does decide to address it, how? What is the best route to go? Direct to the person or the chair?” There are some different options that we can talk about. I want to explain one other thing that’s adding to this feeling that she is having.
There was a large Zoom gathering for all of the first-year students coming into this program. It’s the first time the students are all coming together, and the head of the department and the profs are being introduced and talking. It’s important to say this is a traditionally male-dominated industry. However, at this point, over half of the student body is female. This professor that we are talking about, at the beginning of the meeting, there was some back and forth before the meeting officially started. There was some joking about, “It’s the beginning of the pandemic, and all the men are growing in their facial hair.”
A joke was made about how everybody had beards, and this professor said, “We should make it a new rule that all of the first-year students have to grow a beard.” It fell a little flat according to how it was described to me. Michelle, and especially some of her female colleagues found it a bit annoying that he would say something like that, especially in front of the student body of first-year students. This is their first exposure, and over half of them are women.
They felt as though that was inappropriate and a little bit not reading the room very well. Things like this again have accumulated a little bit to her sense of frustration. I want to start with the elephant in the room about this comment. Is this a sexist comment or is it something that’s, “It’s a joke, and we should dismiss it and move on with our lives?” Let’s start with that, and then we will come back on how to handle the meeting interruptions.
First of all, I’m glad Michelle realized that something needs to be done because something does need to be done. To your point, is this sexism or cluelessness? It’s clueless sexism. It’s basically what it is. I don’t know about you, Debra. I have often heard people say something that is to me, offensive, unkind or rude, and when I object to it, I’m told, “Why can’t you take a joke or get over yourself?” I can take a joke when somebody says something funny but saying something that’s in that gray zone of not quite derogatory gets my back up. I’m at a point in my life in which I address these things because what I know is when they are not addressed, they continue.
Some of my overall thoughts before I think about some of the things that Michelle could do, one is let’s be generous with this older prof. He might be of an era and a time in which this is how you socialize. Maybe in this beard comment, he was nervous being in a call. I can excuse a lot of things. What I can’t excuse is repeated behavior. We don’t know how often it has been addressed. My guess is that this is a climate in which things have been said maybe by women, and they have never been addressed. He and people like him have been able to continue and not have to address their own behavior.
To me, there’s a cultural problem here of which clueless sexism is one manifestation. You said it’s Engineering and Architecture. I’m guessing that this has been over a period of time. It’s a predominantly male profession. That might also be a factor in all of this. That’s my most generous interpretation. Maybe he has never received feedback. Maybe he is completely unaware.
That’s the clueless part of the clueless sexism. One of the things that I come back to all the time when people ask for advice is two parts to a job. One is the thing that you get paid to do, your expertise, skills, and passion, whether it’s a product that you create or that you are helping people learn in this environment. That’s one thing.
The other part of it is the whole context in which you are doing your job. That, to me, is often where people decide that they are having problems. They love what they are doing but the environment is such that they can’t perform to their potential. It feels unsafe or they feel frustrated as Michelle does. The first thing that came to mind when I thought about her situation was something I learned about meditation, which is, “You meditate when things are going well in your life because when they are not, that’s when you most need it.”
You are always responsible for expressing your frustrations.
My first thoughts about her options are, “Separate from this instance with this prof, who does she want to be in her life? What are her key values? How does she want to express those values?” Let’s distill it down a bit, “How does she want to express them professionally? What are the things she is going to stand for? To drill down even further, how does she want to express that in this situation?” You are absolutely right.
When we start going against our own values, that’s when the frustration starts to rise. I know for myself I can’t trust myself to not say something that I would prefer not to have said if I had gone in more in the stance of, “I want to be collaborative, curious, and understanding.” My first piece of advice to her is, “Who does she want to be in this situation?” What are your thoughts?
That’s a good place to start to think about the role that you want to play as a professional in this field where there are a few women. You are in a department where there are aspects about what you want to bring to the profession. You are also in a situation where you are potentially a role model for a student body that is increasingly more women than men at this stage, yet the field is not represented that way. The academic representation in terms of profs is not that way either.
In terms of the clueless sexism part of it, the unfortunate thing here is it comes back to that role modeling. You have got a whole group of eager first-year students who have worked hard to get into a program like this. This is a competitive field. You have to have great marks and a portfolio. You are looking at the next generation of people in this field. A comment like that to me, does not demonstrate the kind of role modeling and leadership we would ideally like to see.
Michelle is leading into, “Who do I want to be in this? Maybe this is a paycheck for me now. I’m supporting my family, and I don’t need to get into this stuff. I’m going to let it go by.” I would say to her too that the fact that it’s agitating her this much is a clue this is information. We want to think about, “How can I show up in a professional manner that is mindful of my professional reputation and role model. How we can address situations like this, where maybe we feel as though something has been said that was inappropriate and to be heard, and at least we have tried?”
You would agree with me on this. Ideally, the leader would have said, “Michelle, I want to hear more about this point that you are making. Can we come back to, Michelle, what you were saying? Let’s maybe dive into this a little bit more. Let’s have some more discussion about this.” As opposed to it being this awkward moment and obvious frustration. If you are paying attention, you can see it and then maybe even address, “What are the norms we want to have around interrupting in our meetings because everybody felt that and saw it? I can imagine that’s obviously frustrating.”
Perhaps even take this person aside and have a private conversation about it, which it doesn’t seem has ever happened but we can’t be sure about that. Ideally, the leader would play a stronger role here because it’s undermining a talented person on your team. That’s one thing. Let’s come back to Michelle’s options. Are you and I in agreement that she should address it?
In an ideal world, the leader of this team understands that it is their role to create a climate and culture in which everybody can be included and feel belonging and participate. I rightly or wrongly lay ongoing patterns of disruptive behavior as interruptions, not necessarily at the foot of the interrupter. They have a key role but if this is happening in a group situation, the leaders lose control of the team because now Michelle has to advocate for herself. She now has to bring this forward and ask for something, which may again be booed, dismissed or something might happen that exacerbates her feelings of not belonging and frustration.
Who knows what the impact is on this? Maybe she is not going to collaborate in the ways that she wants to because of these frustrations. There’s a cost to the individual and the benefit of society. She might decide that she will deal with this at a bit of an arm’s length, and this is how it is and channel her energy into the students. That, to me, would be a legitimate way of doing it. She might decide, “I want to pave the way for the women coming behind me who are going to be academic leaders in this organization. I’m going to take the hit and go to bat. Maybe there are going to be a few more hills to die on than I might have chosen otherwise.”
She could decide not to do anything at all, and that’s okay. She could decide to take it on, and that’s okay. She can decide to go situation by situation. To me, the most important thing for her to do is to take a step back and think about the arc of her career to think about the kind of professional she wants to be and where she is in her life. Maybe she has got teenagers at home, and she wants to keep her best energy to shape these young adults at home in her life. There are so many options.
The first thing I would say to her is, “There’s nothing right or wrong here.” I would caveat that with, “She is responsible for expressing her frustration.” What I have often seen people do instead of saying, “I’m frustrated with this,” is do the talking through the behavior. It’s the eye-rolling and crossing the arms. I would encourage her to find some vocabulary and calmly express what it is that she is feeling. Suddenly, something can come out of your mouth that is not something that you would have chosen vulnerable.
Very quickly, all of a sudden, you are the crazy person. It’s finding some vocabulary to call out and say, “I found it frustrating when you interrupted me.”
Leaders need to be hired for their skills and their ability to be able to create a team culture.
Let me share with you something I learned that I thought was so brilliant. This woman was chairing a meeting. I would be curious to even try this myself, even if I’m not chairing a meeting. She said, “I’m going to give everyone a heads-up. Every time I’m interrupted, I’m going to bang on the table so you know. Let’s start the meeting.” She had to bang on the table almost nonstop. None of the men at the meeting were even aware that that’s how often they were interrupting her. They lacked self-knowledge and self-awareness. That could be an interesting way to express it. That is not hard-asked or antagonistic but it’s communicating something that is useful data for the interrupters to start reflecting on their own behavior.
She could do that in the next meeting. Maybe it’s not to go as far as I’m going to bang on the table, especially if you are not the one facilitating. She could bring up, “I don’t know if anybody else has felt this way but I have been frustrated when I have been interrupted in meetings. Can we have some dialogue and agreement around making sure we let people finish? If we have been interrupted, we can say, ‘I’m not done making my point.'”
Kamala Harris said, “I’m speaking.”
There’s another good one that I was reminded of a little while ago because my teenagers started watching all the old Friends episodes. There’s this one where Monica and Ross are hanging out. Ross is interrupting her and she goes, “Lips moving, still talking.” I have used that in my personal life. I haven’t used it in a meeting but it’s something like that to make light of it, too. She could address it in a meeting. She could go directly to this guy privately and say, “You interrupted me in the meeting. I have noticed that has happened a couple of times, and I find it frustrating. Ask for what you want.”
That’s this thing that always makes me silently scream inside. Often, when a woman clearly asks for what she wants in a non-threatening way, she is perceived to be aggressive and harping. I would suggest that if a woman comes to you and you are a man who has been told that you are saying things and interrupting at the wrong time, see it as a gift. She is making it easy for you to do or not do a particular behavior that is going to enhance the culture and environment in which everybody works. I want to add one thing that tweaked at me when you said that other women in this environment.
Look at the time and energy that’s being spent talking about this instead of focusing on the key drivers of their own engagement. This is a climate in which people are not comfortable. To me, that needs to be addressed. I put some of this at the foot of the leader. Many leaders in academics and any environment that I have worked in are hired for their skills in their thing like the profession and don’t necessarily have the nuanced finessing of being able to create a team culture in which all of these things are group norms in advance. It’s easier to call out when you have an agreement about what is going to be called out at any particular time.
There isn’t a real avoidance because these conversations are tricky and difficult. There is more avoidance of them going on than addressing. They are hard and do take some development of some of these softer skills that are hard. Any other thoughts come to mind in terms of any other language that she could use that might make it?
Sometimes that’s where people get stuck. It’s like, “What should I say?” We want to try to remove emotion from it and stick to the facts and behavior. Avoid labels, name-calling, and observable behavior, “This is how it affected me. Let’s agree and move forward in this way.” The next time it happens, pull a Kamala Harris or something.
There’s a huge difference between saying, “Would you stop being such a jerk,” if you are interrupted and saying, “Can I time this out for a second? This is the third time in this meeting that I was in the middle of saying something that I have been interrupted. What I would kindly request is while I’m talking, until it is obvious that I’m finished, that I please be listened to. If there’s a problem with that, let’s talk about it now.” Asking for what you want like I’m grabbing at my hair. No one is being aggressive, anti-male, men bashing or anything and saying, “I just want to finish a sentence.”
We need to recognize that this happens a lot. It’s well documented and researched. The other thing that’s true is that people who do it are probably not aware they are doing it. This is where unexamined bias comes into play that as human beings have, and we are often not aware of how it’s playing out in our interactions.
You are reminding me of the piece that goes along with this. This has happened to me many times in my career. I have been listened to, and I finished my point, and people are looking a bit neutral. A guy at the table says it in almost the same language, and people are fawning over themselves about what a brilliant idea it is. These two things go hand in hand with interrupting. Our systems are biased. Workplaces have been created, office workplaces particularly and labor places as well. People work with their hands has been largely created by men.
A lot of those norms are there but we are in the business of deconstructing and revolutionizing the workplace. Whatever has been built can be demolished and something new built. Michelle can be a strong role model for the women around her, the students who come into the school, and the men on how to treat women in the workplace. Frankly, we need Michelle to be addressing this. I’m grateful that she asked for advice because it seems like she wants to do something about this.
As a woman, having a male ally in the workplace can go a long way when it comes to inappropriate behavior.
I’m encouraging her to think about how she wants to approach it and address it to the degree that she feels comfortable. The only way we are going to start to see some shifts and changes is if people do start to take those steps because these things don’t change themselves as what we have learned along the way. The last point we will make is allies. Can you pull in some allies, especially a male colleague here?
It could go a long way to have an ally who can also call out interrupting behavior or when they observe something like this happen to do what we said before to say, “I think Michelle had more to say on that or I would like to hear more about that. Can we come back? Can we explore this a little deeper? I would like to understand more about it.” If you have that relationship with someone on the team to pull in some of that support, that can also be helpful.
Thank you so much for joining us. To our audience members, Ask Us Anything is coming because lisa and I want to do more of these. We want to deal with real-life issues that are plaguing people at work and preventing them from doing their great work. We don’t want to be dealing with all of these things that get in the way. The best way to do that is through our website at WorkRevolutionPodcast.com. That’s it for now. Thank you.
Until next time.