Article | Sydney Morning Herald: Women are interrupted more than men, and are 'pushed back harder' finds research

On November 25 by Daisy Dumas for Fairfax Media (Sydney Morning Herald, The Age)

Pushback between politicians and journalists in conversation is not rare. But, says PhD student Joanna Richards, "Women often get pushed back a bit harder".

We saw the furore generated by a simple interruption on TV last week. Jamila Rizvi, commentator and guest on The Projectdared to interrupt co-panelist Steve Price during dialogue about the "real America" in the aftermath of the US election.

How he handled the interjection and how it was then framed on social media led to a petition against Rizvi's protests.

What we witnessed then might have dismayed us but it hardly surprised - particularly Richards, whose PhD homes in on the very subject of high-level verbal interruption.

For her University of Canberra thesis, Let Her Finish, Richards analysed ten Senate Estimates Committee hearings across ten years.

She recorded the frequency and types of interruptions made to senate witnesses, both by and to males and females.

Of 311 "challenges" - interruptions that question the speaker's authority and credibility - issued to witnesses, Richards found that 213 were directed towards women, she told Radio National's Life Matters program.

With interruptions in the 71 per cent male environment coming from both men and women (179 of the 311 interjections were made by men), Richards said that while women interrupt nearly as much as the men they, crucially, don't speak as much without interruption as men.

"Those who were receiving the interruption were almost uniquely female," she said on Wednesday.

Her research also shows that when women interrupt, they are punished more than their male counterparts, with the Chair more likely to call women to account when they behaved this way than men "who got off more lightly with it".

Gender equality in the room, numbers-wise, made a difference to the frequency of interruptions. Rather than dissolving when the hearing's gender split was more balanced, the more even the field, the more women were interrupted.

"Women were treated the best in Senate Estimates Hearings where it was predominantly male," said Richards. "The backlash came when men were trying to remasculinise the environment."

Women were treated the best in Senate Estimates Hearings where it was predominantly male.

Given the upset over Rizvi's debating style when unpacking Trump's win on The Project, Richards' research is not lost on the subject of the president-elect, either.

Looking at Donald Trump's style of debate - heavy with interruption, repetition and name-calling - Richards said the Republican leader had given his rival Hillary Clinton a "credibility deficit".

By constantly cutting in to disagree, she explained, Trump paints Clinton as being deliberately deceiving.

And, demonstrating that demands for empirical evidence are gendered, said Richards, while Clinton was constantly asked to provide evidence for her arguments, Trump's word was taken as enough.

Which, given where we are now, comes as no shock.