Diversity Is Pointless Without Balanced Conversations

Conversational barriers effectively render a group homogenous and remove the benefits that diversity might have otherwise provided, even if the group is technically diverse. 

Imagine yourself in this scenario: You are not the company’s CEO, but rather a new team member who recently joined the organization. You’re sitting with a handful of colleagues in a conference room, your notes in front of you. You’ve thought about this particular project for days, and have a clear proposal for the team’s approach. You politely chime in—only to be cut off mid-sentence by one of your coworkers.

“Excuse me,” you try to interject, “But to return to my point…”

This time, a different coworker bulldozes over your attempted comments, preventing you from getting a word in edgewise. This trend continues for the rest of the meeting; eventually, you close your folder and stop talking. What’s the point if no one will listen?

Unfortunately, this kind of conversational exclusion is all too common for many women at work. As one female professional described in an article for the New York Times, “My female boss told me she needed to allow each man to interrupt her four times before protesting in a meeting. If she protested more often, there were problems.”

Research backs this anecdote. Studies have shown that women often feel uncomfortable speaking up in mixed-gender settings and are more than twice as likely to be interrupted during a group conversation than men, particularly if their industry is male-dominated.

One study conducted by sociologists at the University of Santa Barbara examined  the link between gender and interruption by analyzing conversations between same-sex and mixed-gender groups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that male conversationalists interrupt females far more than vice versa or in homogenous groups. The data that they reported, however, is startling: while the two same-gender groups only experienced a collective seven interruptions, the mixed-gender conversations saw a whopping 48 interruptions—46 of which were due to a male interrupting a female.

Interruption creates exclusion. It empowers one person to claim ownership and direction over the conversation, thus taking away another’s ability to contribute equally and (intentionally or not) dismissing their perspective in favor of the speaker’s. Researchers at Pew found that one in four women feel as though they have to continually “prove themselves” to maintain their colleagues’ respect.

The feeling of dismissal, exclusion, undervaluation can be toxic in the workplace. It may lead some women to participate less in conversation with their male workers or feel as though they aren’t taken seriously or respected by their colleagues—even when they are well-established as authorities in their profession. Consider the Supreme Court as an example; one examination of fifteen years’ worth of Court transcripts found that “male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments.”

Gendered interruption is a problem—but it doesn’t hold a candle to the issues that can arise when a female worker attempts to supersede her interruptive coworkers and runs afoul of stereotypes. In one article for the Harvard Business Review, social researchers Joan C. Williams and Sky Mihaylo shared instances from their research that illustrated the problems that conversational stereotyping can cause.

“We once heard from a woman scientist that she was sharply criticized as “aggressive” when she brought up a flaw in a male colleague’s analysis;” the pair write. “After that she felt she needed to just ‘bring in baked goods and be agreeable.’”

This scenario is problematic on several fronts. Questioning a colleague is not the same as being “aggressive,” especially given that finding flaws is a necessary part of working in science-related fields. It is worth noting, too, that the researcher’s response to the censure was “agreeing” with her male colleagues and apologizing with baked goods. One could argue that the consequences the researcher experienced for making her voice heard forced her back into a stereotypical female role as a quietly supportive caretaker, as opposed to that of a professional on equal par with her colleagues. In a way, the pushback she felt prevented her from doing an aspect of the job she was hired to do.

To quote Laura R. Walker, the president and chief executive of New York Public Radio, in an article for the New York Times, “I think every woman who has any degree of power…knows how it feels to…be in a situation where you’re trying to do your job, and you’re either cut off or ignored.”

This trend is problematic, not just from a social standpoint, but from a business one as well. Diversity has well-documented benefits. According to one 2017 study from the Boston Consulting Group, companies that have diverse management tend to earn 38% more of their revenues, on average, on innovative products and services than their less-diverse peers.

Statistics gathered by Catalyst further suggest that, “Teams are as much as 158% more likely to understand target consumers when they have at least one member who represents their target’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or culture.” This understanding can help teams better serve their consumer base, foster more innovative solutions, and perform at a higher level than other, less-diverse groups.

Diversity can be a business boon—but only if all voices are equally heard. If minority team members need to fight to share their viewpoints or be taken seriously, they may not be able to contribute equally to workplace conversations. These conversational barriers effectively render a group homogenous and remove the benefits that diversity might have otherwise provided, even if the group is technically diverse.

Modern business leaders need to facilitate balanced conversations—in company communications, project discussions and even in day-to-day work. This task won’t be easy; even bringing attention to the problem may feel intimidating in some workplaces. However, conversations about interruptions and the limitations they pose on diverse expression need to be had for both the workers’ and the company’s benefit.

Often, the change process begins with listening. As with any other organizational problem, CEOs and their C-suite cohorts need to understand the scope of the issue at hand before they can begin addressing it. They can accomplish this by actively monitoring conversations and noting if any individuals or groups regularly dominate conversations at the expense of free sharing.

Once leaders have an idea of how certain groups are being sidelined in conversation, they can create structures to prevent such disruption from occurring unchecked in the future. Strategies to encourage open communication may include creating a set of ground rules that specifically govern interruption and overspeaking and establishing a team leader or conversational moderator. The moderator could use those universally-accepted rules to politely but firmly rebut interrupters when they dominate conversations, and circle back to those who were cut off. Over time, these tactics will eventually establish a pattern of positive guidance that will encourage employees at every level of the business to embrace diversity and all of its benefits.

This may sound like a great deal of work (and it is!) but the end result will be worth the effort. If you are a business leader, stop allowing interrupters to cut in on your diversity goals. If you create an environment where everyone can be equally heard, your business will undoubtedly be better for it.