Call it “mansplaining,” “bropropriating,” or “Kanye at the VMAs,” women are familiar with being interrupted by men when they speak.
So when Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted Hillary Clinton at Monday night’s debate — 51 times, according to Vox — it hit home for much of the audience.
Women have been interrupted by men in professional settings for decades. Whether it’s Kanye West cutting off Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards or an executive halted midsentence by her peer in a corporate meeting, studies have found that men are more likely to block women from talking entirely, to correct them, and to prevent them from using expletives.
It’s all about perceived status, said Susan Lee, chairwoman and master lecturer of social sciences at Boston University.
“Why do people interrupt? They feel they are entitled to interrupt because they are higher status,” Lee said. “When the floor opens up for conversation in any setting, the men speak up and speak first and then people defer to them.”
That applies to women in most every professional setting. And consciously or not, experts say, many women adapt to anticipate interruptions.
One approach employed by Clinton was to continue speaking when Trump interrupted her. She also appeared patient, smiling at times, with a touch of dismissive tolerance. Or she confronted him, pointing out the offensive remarks he had made about women in the past.
Vox found that Clinton interrupted Trump 17 times.
Melissa J. Moore, chief scientific officer at Moderna Therapeutics in Cambridge, said as a woman in the male-dominated chemistry field, she was frequently interrupted, especially at the start of her career.
“When I was a grad student in the MIT chemistry department in the ’80s, there weren’t many women besides me. There was one grad student who, every time I spoke, he would interrupt me and he wouldn’t interrupt anyone else,” Moore recalled. “So I sat back and I listened and took data every time he interrupted me, and I confronted him with it and said, ‘You do this to me all the time,’ and he never did it again. That doesn’t happen much anymore though — I’m a pretty loud speaker and I don’t let myself be interrupted.”
Victoria Budson, the executive director of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard, said women often come to debates — and, more generally, to meetings — equipped with resilience and strategies so their ideas will be heard.
“When the person continues on with the point they were trying to make, the interrupter looks foolish because it’s clear they didn’t achieve their goals of either taking over the conversation or silencing the other person’s point,” Budson said.
But while pressing forward works in some instances, interrupters can sometimes raise their voices or physically move to overshadow a challenger.
Marie Danziger, a public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, said women have become adept at inhabiting a role or character to take advantage of interruptions.
“Before the debate even began, I thought, if Hillary could act as though she were almost at a dinner party with Trump and his annoying interruptions, she could laugh at them like, ‘Oh there he goes again,’ ” Danziger said.
“She needed to behave like a wife who is used to it. . . . She controlled herself and did her ‘good wife’ routine. God knows, she’s had practice in that role.”
In the debate world, interruptions aren’t limited to presidential nominees. Amelia Berg, 21, the president of the Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society, said that kind of power politics is rampant in collegiate debate circuits as well.
“One of the biggest things is that judges in debate rounds don’t take our arguments as seriously as the men,” Berg said. “They don’t view what we’re saying as persuasive enough or we didn’t use pretty words or we talk too fast or sound breathy. It very rarely has anything to do with the argument itself.”
Berg said that bias can manifest itself in ballot scores at the end of a debate. She said her rankings are almost always below that of her male counterpart.
“Oftentimes,” she said, “when I’m debating, he will get the credit for a lot of arguments I come up with and he will be scored higher.”
But a new type of behavior is emerging. Berg says her male teammates will clarify in their speeches that their arguments came from some of Berg’s ideas — and give her full credit. She calls it “amplifying” her argument.
It’s a strategy others are employing as well. A recent piece in The Washington Post examined how female aides in the Obama White House pushed to have their voices heard in meetings. When one woman made a strong point, another woman would reiterate it, crediting the first woman. That kind of repetition became the norm and eventually changed the dynamic.
Though Berg says she’s not sure the way that men and women are heard is going to change anytime soon, Clinton’s performance Monday night was a lesson in handling the inevitable interruptions women face.
“Trump’s interruptions were the first thing I noticed,” she said. “And then Hillary was so deliberate about continuing to talk and not letting him shut her down — I thought that was amazing.”