Most men, including most male lawyers and judges, suffer from a hidden disease (assumed male dominance) that manifests itself in three ways during group conversations that are blatantly sexist and often make their female colleagues feel disrespected and relegated to a secondary status. But, sadly, most men are not even aware that this disease has infected them, so here is a checklist to see if you may suffer from any of the three symptomatic behaviors of this disease, plus some suggested “cures” for this widespread disease.
This is when a man cannot stop himself from constantly interrupting women when they are talking. It has been found to thrive at even the highest and most formal levels of our own legal profession. In a 2017 empirical study of 15 years of transcripts of U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments, it was determined that male justices interrupted female justices three times as often as they interrupted their male colleagues on the Court during oral arguments. And despite rules mandating that advocates should stop speaking immediately when a justice starts to speak, some male advocates did interrupt justices from time to time (usually a female justice), but no female advocates did so.
Possible Cures: Men need to learn to check themselves and try to focus on listening and waiting for a female speaker to fully complete her statement before responding or adding their own thoughts. In addition, men who are aware of this spread of unwanted manterruptions can become a true “ally” with their female colleagues by calling out male colleagues who interrupt their female colleagues with comments like, “Joe, let’s let Susan finish her thought.” Our female colleagues should also feel empowered and respected enough to say “Excuse me, Joe, but I was not finished.” But, that is harder to do if the male interrupter is of higher rank or perceived to be more powerful than the female speaker. In addition, if the meeting or conversation has someone serving in the role of its chair, moderator, or convenor, that person should exercise their power by stopping the interruption, gently, and saying, “Joe, let’s let Sue finish what she was saying, as I don’t think she was done.”
In regard to the empirical study of the manterruptions that were prevalent at the Supreme Court over a 15-year period, observers have reported that after the study was discussed in publications like the Harvard Business Review, the male justices must have taken note, because the number of times they interrupted a female justice dropped considerably. In addition, over time, the female justices learned to not begin their questions with prefatory words like “May I ask,” “Can I ask,” “Excuse me,” or by first stating the advocate’s name, as these lead-in comments seemed to provide an opportunity for another justice, typically a male, to jump in before the female justice got to the actual substance of her question. Maybe our female colleagues could also benefit from not being polite in the beginning of their comments, if they often use such prefatory remarks, and instead speak with substance from the beginning of their comments.
This is when a man feels like he must explain what a female colleague just said, even though she is fully capable of answering any questions that others may have herself, and no one has yet asked her for any clarification. Men, if you think a comment by a female colleague was unclear as stated, maybe you need simply ask the female speaker a question as opposed to taking control over the meaning of what she said by volunteering to explain it.
Cures: Men should not assume they are the only person who understood what a female colleague just said because they believe she did not state her thoughts clearly enough. Men should either wait to see if the additional discussion indicates some lack of understanding. And, if it does, men can then ask the female speaker a question to clarify because asking her the question leaves her in control of her statement and its further clarification and prevents you, as a male, from adding your own interpretation of her statement, which could deviate from her intended meaning.
This is the worst of the three symptoms, and it occurs when a woman states an idea early in the group’s conversation, but no one seems to want to support her idea so it gets dropped. But later in the group discussion, a man basically repeats the same idea, and his mention of the same idea generates immediate positive feedback. And then he then begins to receive, and he gladly accepts, the sole credit for generating the idea, even though it was first floated by his female colleague. When this occurs, the man who repeats the woman’s original idea should immediately correct anyone’s attempt to credit him as the sole generator by saying something like: “Let’s remember I was not the person who first thought of this solution, it was Sue. I just brought it up again for further discussion.” But if the Bropropriator himself appears to be totally willing to take the sole credit for the idea even though it was previously expressed by a female colleague, other participants (regardless of gender) in the conversation should jump in to remind him and the group of that fact by saying, “Joe, I am sure you remember that that idea was first put on the table by Sue, so let’s not forget the source.”
Be an Ally: Help Level the Playing Field for Our Female Colleagues
These three male habits of often unconscious male dominance, namely Manterruptions, Mansplanations, and Bropropriations, have been with us for a long time, and most men don’t realize when they are victims of these sexist traits. So, men, let’s try to be more aware and stop committing these three habits at the expense of our female colleagues. And, when called for, let’s also be willing to step up and become a true ally for our female colleagues by correcting our male colleagues when these problems happen in front of us.