Amplification in Academia

Would the White House solution work in academia? 

October 18, 2016

After the recent political confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the word “manterruption” has gone mainstream. It was rather obvious that the Republican candidate repeatedly cut off his opponent during her allotted 2 minutes. What happens at the top of the political elite is familiar practice in the world of business, including show business (anyone remember how hip-hop celebrity Kanye West took the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Awards in 2009?).

I have not found any studies looking at this systematically, but anecdotal evidence suggests that manterruption is also taking place at academic conferences. I had a long Facebook conversation on this topic with a colleague and in that thread many told of experiences such as female panel presenters being interrupted by male chairs while giving a paper, or men interrupting women during the Q&A sessions. Others pointed out that there are fewer women than men who ask questions after keynote lectures and that the academic public space is more dominated by male voices.

My personal experience does not fit with this bleaker view of academic conferencing. In my subject area, there are many women-dominated panels, both numberwise and in terms of the positions occupied (panel chair, project leader). At a majority of the conferences I attended, the keynote speakers were both men and women. True, I did not pay attention to who was asking more questions in the Q&A sessions, or after keynote presentations, but it never struck me as disproportionately male (this may be my own bias). And when someone was asked to speak up, the persons (male and female alike) were indeed talking too softly to be heard in the room.

What can explain the difference between my experience and that of my colleagues? One reason may be the academic field I am in, social sciences. I would be curious to see a list of subject areas where manterruption is a more common practice than in others. Another explanation may reside with the self-awareness of the organizing committee of the conferences I recently attended. When perusing the program, I noticed that they made an active attempt to avoid man-only panels, and to obtain a gender-balanced distribution of speakers.

Perhaps this degree of self-awareness is rare among conference organizers. The solution adopted by women working at the White House may be appropriate in an academic setting as well. Called amplification, the practice simply says that when a woman makes a key point in a meeting the other women in the room would repeat it, to make it apparent to all, including the men attending, that this is an important idea and cannot be dismissed or ignored just because it was uttered by a female.

Taking into account the circumstances of higher education, do you think amplification is necessary and could work in academic settings? And what about the men that also want a gender-balanced environment at work, what role do they have in amplifying women’s voices?


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