Vol 12, Issue 3
Last year I was sitting in a lecture, having a chat during the break. “Did you know that Lecturer X interrupts female students more than male students?” My classmate had been keeping a tally for a number of weeks.
At first I thought nothing of it. And then I started paying attention – not just in that subject, but all of them. I also started speaking to other students. It seemed that sometimes the interruptions made sense in context. More on that later. But often they did not. I asked myself: why was it necessary to interrupt female students who were clearly on the right track and on the way to the end of a sentence?
THE FACTS - BRIEFLY
That women are interrupted during lectures is unsurprising. My classmate’s tally and my own observations admittedly comprise a very small and unscientific sample. However, both our anecdotal perceptions correlate with a bigger picture that is being documented and reported upon. Women are simply interrupted more often than men. And, mostly, by men. See this US Study, this Australian PhD thesis and media coverage here, here, here and here. Admittedly, that last link is Penny Wong shutting down Senator Ian Macdonald. But frankly, it is gold.
It is worth pointing out that not all variables have been accounted for. I have yet to find a study on the impact of lecturers’ interruptions on women in universities. And perhaps at MLS, interruptions from lecturers actually affect all students.
So please feel free to take these studies and observations with a grain of salt. But, I would encourage you not to discount the issue of interruptions to the extent that it affects female students.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Chiefly because being able to contribute to discussions and overcome interruption pays dividends along the line. In a professional environment, women who can overcome interruptions can float an idea or share insights in their entirety without someone else taking credit for their contributions. Or shutting them down. As a consequence, women who are listened to are acknowledged as valuable members of the workplace, rather than being ignored. At least that’s the theory, presuming it’s possible to overcome the Smart but Mouthy / Likeable but Invisible dichotomy. But that’s a story for another day.
At university, women need opportunities to test their ideas and to practice speaking to prepare themselves for this reality. When women are chosen to speak as frequently as their male counterparts, they are given this opportunity. When lecturers do not interrupt, women feel valued and learn to communicate with confidence. They might be wrong. Way, way wrong. They might need to clarify their thinking, aided by further questioning. But they will be heard.
ADDRESSING THE ISSUE
Undoubtedly, women at MLS have a role to play, as communication is a two way street. One way or another, we need to find the courage to put up our hands, and say: “EXCUSE ME.” These words may be delivered with what resembles a desperate screech at first, but they are powerful. Despite feelings of self-doubt, (Am I a harpy? Am I being oversensitive?) we can command attention and reorient the conversation. Better yet, if in and beyond the classroom we bypass the ‘excuse me’ and simply continue speaking in spite of the interruption, it will become very clear we still have something to say. Now is the time to start practicing, both in class and during social interactions. The fact is, we are approaching professional environments full of big personalities and loud voices. We might as well get used to asserting ourselves in a world that is progressive, but far from perfect.
As for the lecturers? It would be appropriate at this moment to disclose that I have noticed it is mostly male lecturers who interrupt, though I have observed female lecturers do so from time to time. It is also prudent to mention that I think these interruptions are unintentional, and that respect for all students is the norm. But there is always room for improvement, to build on the high quality of education we already receive.
A part of me doesn’t want lecturers to stop interrupting. Given what I have already said, students probably need the challenge. And, frankly, there are times when students are off-track, confused, or need to be rescued from a horrendously awkward pause. Sometimes, an interruption can be empowering. My favourite memory is of a female lecturer who regularly interjected when students spoke and said: “Can you say that again? But say it louder.” Once more, with feeling!
I am also aware that getting students to speak up at all can be difficult. Generally, experiments in (oh horror) cold calling and using the (dreaded) Socratic Method meet with resistance.
But I’m also conscious that there are students who will benefit from a more patient ear. For this reason, and the others I have outlined, it would help for lecturers to place a priority on listening more, and on actively encouraging women to speak in lectures.
Let me end by leaving female students with an anecdote, in case some of you are wondering whether anyone will have your back out there in a world full of interruptions.
Earlier this year, I was listening to a trusts case about a mosque unfold in the Supreme Court. A male and a female barrister were standing side by side. That was the problem, actually. Instead of waiting patiently for the female barrister to finish, the male barrister repeatedly popped up to interrupt her. To the female barrister’s credit she was unintimidated and merely cocked her head to the side, bemused but unflustered.
I tutted mentally at the discourtesy of it all. Moments later, I was surprised to hear actual tutting coming from somewhere. Fortunately, the sound hadn’t come from me. In fact, it came from the judge, accompanied by a firm statement: “We do not generally interrupt our colleagues.” The male barrister blustered a little, but resumed his place at this reminder.
I looked down, grinned, and added a mark to my own mental tally.
We’ve got this.
Alice Kennedy is a third-year JD student
More articles like this
The rest of this issue