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Women often think that “one day” they will garner the professional respect and standing that will stop men from interrupting them when the woman is speaking. Today we are presenting two studies of women who’ve reached heights in their professions which most women (and most men for that matter) will never achieve. Both studies tell us the fantasy of speaking without interruption is likely untrue.

Harassment of female “Space Scientists

Despite all the professed desire to increase the number of women in STEM fields, the working environment experienced by women scientists continues to be hostile. A recent survey of astronomers and planetary scientists asked whether they had been harassed either in school or at work. The survey (for those who like to know such things) was distributed online in early 2015. The researchers received responses from 474 planetary scientists and astronomers.

What is important to know here is that this was not a random sample. The authors report the sample was different from the entire field of space scientists in the following ways: the participants were earlier in their careers than would be a randomly selected sample, were more likely to be women or racial minorities, and were probably savvier about social media than the average space scientist. The researchers say the results are not generalizable to all space scientists but the results do answer (with a resounding yes) the question of whether there really is a problem.

The results were even worse than expected by the supervising professor. Here are a sample of the findings:

Female scientists were more likely than male scientists to report having heard racist or homophobic remarks and to have experienced both verbal and physical harassment (at work and at school) during the five most recent years.

Scientists who were ethnic or racial minority group members were more likely than white scientists to have heard racist and homophobic remarks and to have been harassed.

40% of scientists who were women of color said they had felt unsafe at work because of their gender.

Among female non-white scientists, 28% reported feeling unsafe because of their race.

White women (12%), women of color (18%) and one man of color (6% of his male of color cohort) reported having skipped at least one class, meeting or other professional event because they felt unsafe.

The authors of this paper (which is available on-line) make some recommendations for reducing this harassment. They suggest both schools and labs have diversity training as well as a code of conduct that is enforced. They suggest leaders in the field model “appropriate behavior” (unlike, for example, the example set by leading “planet finder”/space scientist and tenured professor Geoff Marcy who harassed women in his field for decades), and that the profession actually follow their written codes and sanction offenders quickly and fairly.

Surely women who are Supreme Court Justices are free of interruptions!

Nope. Not even. “There is no point at which a woman is high-status enough to avoid being interrupted”. The Harvard Business Review recently summarized the results of a new empirical study [available at SSRN] by Northwestern University researchers. The results mirror the results from the survey of space scientists. If you are a female or a minority (or both) and happen to be a Supreme Court Justice—prepare to be interrupted (and keep reading to see the strategies used by real Supreme Court Justices who are women to decrease the number of interruptions from men).

The HBR summary first tells us that Neil Gorsuch will fit in well at the current Supreme Court since he “repeatedly interrupted” liberal female senators during his Senate hearings. Then, they move on to summarize the new study (the result of reviewing transcripts from 15 years of Supreme Court oral arguments) which shows the following disheartening information:

As more women join the Supreme Court, male justices are increasing their interruptions of the women justices rather than decreasing them (as one might hope). As an example, in the last 12 years, women were 24% (on average) of the Supreme Court composition. During that time frame, 32% of the interruptions were of the female justices (by either their male colleagues or by the male advocates arguing cases). In comparison, only 4% of the interruptions came from the female justices. The researchers looked at transcripts all the way back to 1990 to see if the pattern of interrupting women was the same when there fewer female justices.

In 1990, Sandra Day O’Connor was the only female justice and 35.7% of all interruptions were directed at her.

In 2002, there were two female justices (O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and 45.3% of all interruptions were directed at them.

In 2015, there were three female justices (Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) and, maintaining the increasing frequency of interrupting female justices, 65.9% of all interruptions were of those three women.

In fact, in 2015, Sonia Sotomayor (the only woman of color on the bench) was the most common justice target for interruption by male advocates. (This despite the Supreme Court rule mandating advocates stop talking immediately when a justice begins speaking). The total number of interruptions by male advocates was 10% of the interruptions with 8% (of the 10%) directed at Justice Sotomayor.

Conservative justices are more likely to interrupt liberal justices (70% of the interruptions made by conservative justices) than to interrupt their conservative colleagues (30%).

“Junior” status on the bench also results in more interruptions (at a statistically significant level) from senior justices. However, the researchers say gender is about 30x more powerful a predictor of interruption than length of time on the bench. The researchers expect the introduction of Gorsuch as the most junior colleague will result in an intensification of the gender over seniority interruption relationship.

So if both male Supreme Court advocates and male Supreme Court Justices are increasing their interruptions of women justices, what does a woman do to make a difference? The women who are Supreme Court justices adapt, according to the researchers. They change their speech patterns to mirror those of the male justices. They are, again according to the researchers, less polite. Here’s how the researchers summarize it:

Early in their tenure, female justices tend to frame questions politely, using prefatory words such as “May I ask,” “Can I ask,” “Excuse me,” or the advocate’s name. This provides an opportunity for another justice to jump in before the speaker gets to the substance of her question.

We found that women gradually learn to set aside such politeness. All four of the female justices have reduced their tendency to use this polite phrasing. Justice Sotomayor adjusted within just a few months. Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg gradually became less and less polite over decades on the court, eventually using the polite phrases approximately one-third as much as they did initially. Justice Kagan is still learning: She uses polite language more than twice as often as the average man, although half as often as she did in 2010. We do not see a similar trend with the men, because male justices rarely use these polite speech patterns, even when they first enter the court. It is the women who adapt their speech patterns to match those of the men.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the results of this study are instructive. Female litigators would perhaps do well to modify their speech patterns to mirror those of men. This raises the question that has dogged women in authority forever—conduct and speech which is acceptable and expected from men often results in women being viewed as emasculating or ‘bitchy’. There is a double standard, and ignoring it risks alienating jurors on the one hand, or getting run over by men on the other. Women litigators and female witnesses would do well to review our blog posts on traditionally feminine speech patterns and work to minimize their frequency.

The researchers also call upon the Chief Justice to intervene in the interruptions of women justices and we would say the same for senior partners at law firms. If women are interrupted, speak up and demonstrate an environment that is receptive to both female and male opinions. (It matters.)

Clancy, K. B. H., K. M. N. Lee,E. M. Rodgers, and C. Richey (2017). Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. 122. Open access pdf at: