Gender, Perceived Competence, and Power Displays: Examining Verbal Interruptions in a Group Context
Both men and women display power in groups by interrupting speakers when the groups are predominantly male, though not in female-dominated groups.
How we speak up in groups, or not, can reveal how power is distributed between people within a group, particularly in a work context. Sharing your opinion or viewpoint out loud can reinforce or challenge practices that grant privilege to men and disadvantage women at work. One verbal mechanism of power and dominance is interruption, because it constitutes a violation of the current speaker’s right to speak and controls the subject of conversation. Verbal interruptions can therefore be used to assert influence in group settings. Previous research indicates that men engage in more interruptive behavior than women, but this could be due to a combination of gender, the gender make-up of the working group, and the speaker’s perceived competence in a given situation. This study examines how gender, group gender composition, and the gender-stereotype of the task impacts interruptions in a group context.
Both men and women interrupt more when the group is male-dominated. Women interrupt far less when the task is male-stereotyped (negotiating a car sale) compared with female-stereotyped (negotiating a sexual harassment case).
- Men interrupt significantly more when working in a male-dominated group than in a female-dominated group. Men interrupt on average 1.39 times in male-dominated groups, compared with 0.95 times in female-dominated groups.
- Similarly to men, women interrupt more when working with a male-dominated group than in a female-dominated group. Women interrupt on average 1.39 times in a male-dominated group, compared with 1.11 times in a female-dominated group.
- Even when women make up the majority of the group, they interrupt far less when the task is perceived as male-stereotyped. Women interrupt 1.31 times when the task is female-stereotyped (negotiating a sexual harassment case) compared with 0.89 times when the task is male-stereotyped (negotiating a car sale).
- When men make up the majority of the group, they interrupt more when the task is perceived as female-stereotyped. Men interrupt 1.56 times when the task is female-stereotyped (negotiating a sexual harassment case) compared with 1.22 times when the task is male-stereotyped (negotiating a car sale).
- Both male and female members were less likely to be viewed by their peers and judges as exhibiting leadership qualities when they interrupted the conversation. Peer-based and judge-based leadership ratings were negatively correlated with interruption behavior.
Both men and women exhibit higher levels of power displays, in the form of verbal interruptions, when working in male-dominated groups compared to female-dominated groups.
University students (108 male and 108 female) from undergraduate business programs in two large North American universities were randomly assigned to 36 groups with 6 participants per group. Participation in this study was part of a course assignment that required students to engage in videotaped group discussions of several business cases. The students were asked to discuss two managerial related tasks in each group: The male-stereotyped task was a business negotiation involving cars, and the female-stereotyped task involved the negotiation of job responsibilities with implications of sexual harassment surrounding the situation. Groups were instructed to reach a consensus regarding the development of a negotiation strategy within 30 minutes for the two cases. Their conversations were videotaped, and judges (psychology graduate students) scored each group member on the number of interruptions, as well as their leadership exhibited on a 6-point scale. Following each group discussion, group members ranked each other with regard to the level of leadership that group members exhibited in the group discussion on a 6-point scale.