By Sophie Smith
I am in class, discussing with a group of students the writings of an Enlightenment author. I am the only person in the group who identifies as a woman. No one will let me speak.
At first I think nothing of it. In group settings like this people are eager to have their voices heard, even if that means accidentally interrupting someone in the process. But after a while, I pick up on certain patterns. I can never talk for more than a few seconds before someone cuts me off and starts to speak, speaking with impunity and usually regurgitating some version of what I was just saying. The men won’t meet my eyes when I talk and have angled their desks away from me so they can continue the discussion as if I am not there.
This might sound like an anomaly, just one exceptionally disrespectful group of classmates, but to many women the pattern is familiar. It is a typical scene: once it’s finally her turn to speak, she gets in only a few words before another student — typically a man — interrupts her.
Willamette University takes pride in students’ opportunities to make their voices heard, with small class sizes, discussion-based courses and a widespread recognition of the importance of equality. Yet in our classrooms, where all opinions ought to be respected, half (fifty-five percent, to be precise) of students’ voices are consistently being silenced.
“It is frustrating to be at an institution that preaches equality, and yet still I find myself constantly cut off and talked over,” said one female Willamette student. “How am I supposed to learn in a place where my opinion isn’t always valued equally?”
It’s not just a Willamette problem. We see it happen in politics, when Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 25 times in the first 26 minutes of the presidential debate. We see it in casual conversations: one 1975 study found that 96 percent of interruptions in mixed-gender conversations were men cutting off women. A similar 2014 study found that, in conversations between men and women, men interrupted women twice as often as women interrupted men.
This phenomenon is universal, and one that does not seem to be improving over time. So why do we let men get away with it?
The explanation can be traced back to those pesky gender norms. Boys are raised to associate masculinity with power and aggression and, as Dr. Adrienne Hancock, a linguist from George Washington University, says, “Interruptions can be used to display or gain dominance.” Interrupting women in class is another medium for men to oppress women, and to teach women from a young age that they are expected to shrug it off with submissiveness and polite manners.
Even if a man’s interruptions are unintentional and subconscious, it is still indicative of a larger societal issue, and without addressing it this problem will only continue to grow more prevalent and harmful.
The best class I have ever taken was a gender studies course at a university in Ohio. Every student in the class, including the professor, either identified as female or nonbinary. The class became a haven for its students, where thoughts and opinions could be shared without fear of interruptions.
We could speak slowly and leave space between our thoughts, sure that no one would cut us off during a cough or a breath that lasted too long. We did not have to censor the way we spoke, did not have to inflect the ends of our sentences into questions or pepper our phrases with parentheticals. These linguistic features (“Um, I think this author is, like, more profound, ya know?”) had always been protective padding for our arguments. If a man were to interrupt or argue with us, we could fall back on, “It was just a question.” In this class we could strip our sentences of these decorations and speak with confidence. I have never learned more in a class.
There is no reason why an environment as safe and welcoming as this can’t include men. It just happens that when male students are added to the picture, disrespect and hostility always come to follow.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but here we are. Dear boys: let women speak in class. There are valuable voices and perspectives that belong to people other than yourselves, and listening to them can teach you more than any syllabus can.
And to those whose voices are marginalized in class: education comes before good manners. You have the right to tell a man, “I am not finished speaking,” “Stop ignoring me” or “I just said that.” Even if the man’s interruption is not ill-intentioned, continuing to be quiet and complacent will only further reinforce that his behavior is acceptable. You have the right to speak with confidence and without fear of being silenced. You have the right to be heard.