While Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate was much more civil than last week’s interruption-intensive face-off between the presidential candidates, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris also talked over each other at times — and Joe Biden’s running mate wasn’t having it.
“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.”
“If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation.”
“He interrupted me, and I’d like to just finish, please.”
Harris’s repeated refusal to let Pence talk over her led to these quotes trending on Twitter on Wednesday night. And many tweets featured other women calling out how often they have experienced similar interruptions in their lives, particularly at work.
Research shows they have a point. Several studies of differences in speech patterns between genders since the 1970s have found that men are more likely to interrupt other people — and they interrupt women the most.
A landmark Stanford University study in 1975 featured researchers listening in on conversations in coffee shops and drugstores, and counting the interruptions committed by men and women during these chats. Only one interruption in the 48 they counted was made by a woman. That’s one in 48. “Men deny equal status to women as conversational partners with respect to rights to the full utilization of their turn and support for the development of topics,” the researchers concluded.
A 1983 study on “Interruptions and Nonverbal Gender Differences” noticed that men interrupted women more when the ladies leaned away, smiled and didn’t look at the person they were speaking to. Harris, many viewers noticed, leaned in and often looked directly at Pence while she was speaking Wednesday night.
By 2014, a George Washington University study found the overall interruption gap between men and women closing, with both genders butting in when it wasn’t their turn at similar rates. But women were still getting talked over more — by both men and women. Men interrupted 33% more when they were speaking with women, cutting women off 2.1 times during a three-minute conversation, but only talking over other men 1.8 times. The women in the study only interrupted men once, on average, during a three-minute conversation — but they interrupted other women 2.8 times.
Women also have to fight to get a word in edgewise on the highest court in the land. Researchers from the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law analyzed 15 years of oral-argument transcripts for the Supreme Court of the United States. And they found that male justices interrupted female justices about three times more often than they interrupted other men.
And it only got worse as more women joined the court. When former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the only woman on the bench in 1990, 35.7% of interruptions were of her. When O’Connor was joined by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2002, 45.3% of all interruptions were directed at them. And when Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan were all on the Supreme Court in 2015, 65.9% of interruptions were directed at them.
This was also not the first time that Harris has been interrupted on the national stage. She was cut off by Sen. Richard M. Burr and the late Sen. John McCain, Republicans from North Carolina and Arizona, while questioning then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a 2017 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election interference. The same senators had interrupted her the week before as she attempted to question the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.