Carnegie Mellon University
October 21, 2020

Women Interrupted: A New Strategy for Male-Dominated Discussions

CMU expert discusses role of female moderator in final presidential debate

By Jason Maderer

Jason Maderer
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For decades, Carnegie Mellon University’s Joanna Wolfe has studied the role gender plays in communication. Specifically, her research investigates how often men and women speak, interrupt and talk over one another. She also studies how people are perceived when they stand up for themselves when ignored.

This expertise provides Wolfe a unique perspective in advance of this week’s final presidential debate, to be moderated by Kristen Welker, a Black woman.

“The research is pretty clear: While both sexes interrupt, men talk and interrupt more often than women. Some of that is because society has accepted that it’s normal and natural that men tend to talk more,” said Wolfe, a teaching professor of English in Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “And when a woman complains or stands up for herself, she’s more likely to be negatively viewed than her male peers.”

Organizers for Thursday’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have established new rules. Each candidate’s microphone will be muted when his rival answers Welker’s questions. Welker won’t be in control of turning the microphones on and off, but Wolfe says the decision gives her a bit more control as she tries to maintain order among the two men. It will be tough, Wolfe said, as research shows that women or people of color are more likely to be dismissed and ignored.

“Welker can be effective by being assertive on the viewers’ behalf,” Wolfe said. “She can emphasize that she is acting forcefully because it is in the best interests of the American people to conduct a fair debate. Research shows that we are okay with women using more aggressive conversational tactics, such as interruptions or talking over people, if they are clearly doing it on someone else's behalf.”

This tactic, Wolfe said, lessens what she calls the “social penalty” women unfairly face when they are assertive. While one non-CMU study has shown that Black women face less of a backlash than White women, research has shown that forceful women are generally perceived as unlikeable unless they preface their forcefulness with concern for social relationships.

“The same is not true for men, and it is extremely unfortunate,” Wolfe said. “But rather than change things so that women don't have to be nice, why don't we make the default to show respect to others even as we disagree with their position? The problem isn't that we judge women for getting angry. It’s that we give men a pass, and may even reward them, for dominating others and being forceful.”

In her new study currently under peer review, Wolfe identified an effective formula that women and men can use when being interrupted or ignored. She labels it “positive future focus.” It was developed through surveys and observation of hundreds of engineering students and professionals, then compared to traditional conflict-resolution tactics.

Rather than heeding the typical strategies, which encourage a person to publicly acknowledge their negative feelings and why they feel that way, Wolfe said people — and especially women — are more effective when they’re positively assertive.

“If being ignored, talked over or repeatedly interrupted, a person should begin by saying something positive — perhaps by acknowledging the merits of the interrupter’s position,” Wolfe said. “They should then note shared goals that aren’t being met and offer a solution. For instance, the person could say ‘we could be having a better discussion. Let’s take care not to interrupt or share more thoughts until everyone has had a chance to speak.’”

While the tactic was effective for men and women in the study, it appeared to have a greater effect on minimizing the social penalty women experience for asserting themselves in a conflict.

Despite the differences in perceptions, Wolfe says people typically want to improve their communication skills — even if it might not be on display during Thursday’s debate. 

“I’ve found that men are surprised when you show them video of themselves interrupting or talking over other people, especially women,” she said. “They’re just not aware until you bring it to their attention. And once you do, they recognize it and want to get better. Everyone sees interruptions as impolite. It just seems to be less of a violation for a man than a woman.”