Yes, there was a fly on Vice President Mike Pence’s head during this week’s vice presidential debate. But before the insect stole the show, social media was already abuzz with comments about Pence’s multiple interruptions of his opponent, Senator Kamala Harris, and his refusal to stop talking when moderator Susan Page called time.
Page signaled to Harris to stop talking 13 times. She had to signal Pence 45 times.
In a bonus round of what’s been called “manterrupting,” former politician Rick Santorum interrupted commentator Gloria Borger while she was talking about Pence’s interruptions on CNN following the debate.
These scenes resonated with many of the female academics watching.
“The moderator verbally admits Pence has had more time than @KamalaHarris but still gives him more time,” Anne Charity-Hudley, North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African-America at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said on Twitter. “This is the story of Black women in a nutshell.”
Anna Meier, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, tweeted, “I have never gotten dirtier looks in any scenario than in academic settings after I’ve asked men who’ve interrupted me if I can finish.”
Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, joined in, writing “that for every time we ask if we can finish a thought, there are a hundred times we don't bother to bring up being interrupted.”
Manterrupting, sometimes followed by “mansplaining” or “manologues,” doesn’t just feel real -- it is real, across sectors. Studies have documented the phenomenon, including one that found 66 percent of all interruptions during oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court were directed at the three women on the bench as of 2015. Analyses of earlier arguments showed that the share of interruptions directed at women grew as their numbers grew.
Another study of 40 participants found that men interrupted 33 percent more often when they were speaking with women, compared to when they were speaking with other men. In that study, men interrupted women 2.1 times per three-minute conversation, compared to 1.8 times per conversation with other men. Women on average interrupted men once.
Jillian Weise, a professor of creative writing at Clemson University, said the debate recalled numerous academic settings in which she’s been interrupted or otherwise disrespected by men. A self-described cyborg, in reference to her computerized leg, Weise said she faces this kind of discrimination both because she is a woman and because she is disabled.
“I am interrupted, talked over, disregarded, patronized, talked down to and even patted on the head,” she said. “Yes, I have been patted on the head at my workplace.”
Weise has faced all manner of inappropriate behaviors regarding her disability, including strangers at the gas station asking if they can pray for her. The supposedly enlightened halls of higher education are no exception.
“My defense tactic is to never be myself. I am always in character,” said Weise -- both for herself and for the other disabled, female academics for whom she sees herself as paving a way. “At work, I am playing the character of a professor. This way, when people degrade me in conversation, they are not actually degrading me. They are engaging with some theater. That helps me a lot.”
Weise said she watched the debate in a similar light, imagining that Harris also was in character, obscuring the harsher reality, as she described it, of Harris’s many accomplishments and qualifications being minimized by a white man talking over her.
“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking,” Harris had to say, in various iterations, several times.
Pence talked over Page, as well, though some critics fault Page as being complicit in Pence’s assumption he could talk or silence a woman of color many times. Page, who is white, tended to tell Pence “Thank you, Mr. Vice President” over and over until he cut himself off.
Research supports the idea that women of color face a double bind when it comes to discrimination and emotional labor -- including the work of managing the personalities around them -- in the academic workplace.
Charity-Hudley, who is Black, said Thursday via email that her tweet and the reaction to it demonstrate “how some people wanted to make this about all women (in the vein of all women matter). But this is also an example of anti-Blackness as white women were the arbiters of what I was describing.”
“If someone wants to learn to be an ally they need to support other voices,” she said.
Kaela Singleton, a Black postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at Emory University, said she's "definitely experienced a situation similar to Senator Harris," from being interrupted, "to being called aggressive when I stand up for myself in those moments." It's happened so often in so many different settings that “I’m used to it by now,” she added.
Singleton’s main anti-manterrupting tactic is to have an ally or advocate around to “re-affirm that I wasn’t finished speaking, or made that point earlier.” It's "unfortunate" but "not surprising" that Page didn't do that for Harris, she said.
When Singleton does stand up for herself -- similar to what Harris did -- she said she's been called rude, assertive or bossy.
At this point in her career and life, though, she continued, “If I’m going to be called assertive for ensuring that my voice is heard, then so be it.”
Singleton applauded Harris for helping dispel a philosophy that Singleton herself was raised under: that “little girls are meant to be seen and not heard.”
“It’s taken me years to unlearn that and to embrace that my voice has a place in conversations,” she said, crediting Harris with “emphasizing to young girls and women -- especially Black girls and women -- that their voices are meant to be heard and valued and, most importantly, that no one has the right to silence you.”
Kayla Renée Wheeler, assistant professor of gender and diversity studies at Xavier University in Ohio, recalled a recent experience with a male academic talking over her: at a faculty meeting over the summer, when she suggested that the campus include something about severing ties with local police as part of its response to anti-Blackness and white supremacy.
“Are you crazy?” Wheeler recalled the unnamed white man yelling.
“We only got two minutes each to speak,” Wheeler said. “I yelled back, ‘What did you say to me?’ I told him that it was unacceptable and told the whole assembly that I was not done speaking and that the interruption was not going to count against my time.”
Most of Wheeler's other past experiences with disrespectful male colleagues involved men trying to get her to stop talking, or ignoring her and then taking some kind of credit for what she’d already said.
In response to the former kind of behavior, “I just talk louder and slower, so I can take up as much time and space as possible,” she said. “I haven't come up with a good strategy for the latter other than making faces. My face usually speaks before I open my mouth. I get called aggressive, mean, opinionated, loud and intimidating when I push back.”
As a “brown-skinned Black woman,” Wheeler said, “those stereotypes follow me no matter what I do or say.” Age is also a factor, as “people expect me to be quiet because I'm younger than most of my colleagues.”
There exists a “hierarchy in the academy and people often weaponize collegiality to keep marginalized voices silent,” Wheeler said. “When you refuse to play that game, you face pushback.” White women play a role in enforcing that hierarchy, as well, she said.
Has the Zoomification of academe during the pandemic improved things in this respect? Some female students, at least, say manterrupting is worse in the virtual classroom.
Wheeler said Zoom's mute feature is “a godsend” for her. Yet, over all, virtual meetings are worse than in-person ones, “partly because you can't read as many social cues to figure out when people are done talking.”
Interestingly, though, Wheeler said, “some people, especially women, who might not have otherwise spoken up are using the comments section” to get a word in.