Even female Supreme Court justices are interrupted when speaking
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Every woman I know has experienced being interrupted by a man while she was speaking. Most of us have ample experience with “mansplaining.” And, what female flyer hasn’t experienced the man sitting next to us “manspreading” into our space, but not into the space of the man on the other side of him?

Now, a startling new study shows that even in the United States Supreme Court, male justices and lawyers far more frequently interrupted female justices than they did male justices.

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Not surprisingly, given what is known about how inequalities associated with multiple identities aggregate, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most interrupted justice, with 8 percent of all interruptions being directed at our sole female justice of color.

 

When I read about this research, I asked myself what women often ask themselves: How could these female justices push back without being viewed as abrasive (well, you know the word I actually mean…).

After all, what is Sotomayor to do with this newfound data on the small incivilities being leveled at her by her colleagues and even male lawyers seeking her favor? She faces the same bind women face every day: Call the actions out and be viewed as hostile and abrasive, or don’t call them out and leave these actions unchallenged.

According to the study, one thing that all three female justices have done is to change how they speak. Over time, they all give fewer openings that allow easier interruptions. For instance, they are less likely to say “Excuse me,” before beginning their question. This makes it harder to interrupt, but does not entirely stop interruptions all together. It also suggests that the problem is caused and controlled by the female justices, when that is not the case.

Drawing on years of being an amateur female golfer, let me suggest a different tact. Golf is a very male sport, and since I don’t play with a regular foursome, I am routinely paired up with whatever group didn’t have four players. This basically means I am regularly paired up with several men I have never met and then spend four to five hours golfing with them.

It seems that no matter how bad or good of a golfer they are, most cannot help but to start giving me advice, mansplaining golf to me. I face an analogous bind to the justices, but with fewer consequences, since constitutional questions do not hang in the balance: How do I challenge this man’s belief that I need and want his unrequested advice without being perceived as whiny — since we have several hours left ahead us in our round?

Over time, I invented a sure-fire method for resolving this mansplaining: I start giving him advice right back. I have advice about his swing, about his club choice, and about his target line. When I start doing this, one of two things tends to happen: He immediately shuts down conversation, and we enjoy (from my perspective) a wonderfully quiet round of golf, or he tells me, sometimes politely and sometimes less so, that he doesn’t need my advice. Upon being told he doesn’t need my advice, I react with shock, "Oh, I thought you wouldn’t mind since you have been giving me advice. I thought that is what we were doing, helping each other.”

In doing so, I am able to “innocently” surface the core inequality that he took for granted and so vexed me, and then we generally move on.

To be sure, I am not advocating for greater incivility, but I am advocating for the creation of a common conversational playing field with common rules that either commonly disallow interruptions or commonly allow them.

Instead of female justices adjusting their speech to limit the openness of their comments to interruptions, I suggest Justice Sotomayor and her fellow female justices undertake more interruptions themselves. If John Roberts, or our newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, who showed such a penchant for interrupting female senators during his confirmation hearings, grow tired of her interruptions, perhaps she can let them know, “Oh, I thought you wouldn’t mind since that is what you have been doing to me.”

Jennifer Earl is professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, where she studies the legal system, social movements, and technology usage, and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow.


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