I’ve been so accustomed to hearing women being talked over that it shocked me to hear it disrupted
“Excuse me, wait until I’m finished speaking.”
I’ve heard my philosophy professor direct this statement and its variants multiple times at young men in the classroom. She isn’t sexist. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt she would say the same to a woman. But the girls in my classes simply don’t interrupt. The boys do.
Over the course of nearly six months in her classes I’ve watched my professor interrupt the interrupters regularly and without hesitation. She’s defended her own speech and the voices of other women, but in every case the story is the same. Someone is speaking, another person starts to respond or comment, and she tells them to hold their thoughts until the speaker is done.
I was uncomfortable the first time I witnessed my professor do this, but not for the right reasons. In fact, I was completely startled when it happened because I hadn’t even noticed she was being talked over. I think the disruptive student was just as stunned — mortified, even — that he had done such a thing (to an ethics specialist, of all people). I remember he approached her after class to apologize, and I left the room trying to make sense of what happened. Did he really interrupt? Were they simply engaging in discourse, and she misread? And even if he did interrupt, was her response too abrasive?
All of these questions are, of course, ridiculous. It took longer than it should have for me to recognize these incidences as interruptions and realize she was doing exactly what she should in response to them.
It’s no secret that women (and any group deviating from white men) have had to demand a seat at the seminar table. Academic philosophy has a serious diversity problem, and we are still figuring out how to solve it. A recent study found that in the U.S., women compose only 25 percent of the faculty in philosophy departments. There’s no question that this gap has influenced how women in philosophy are treated and how their work is received — or not received. As a fourth-year philosophy major, I find it pretty depressing that I’ve read more papers written by women in three classes taught by women than in all of my other philosophy courses combined.
I don’t know if students I’ve seen interrupt women are part of this deep institutional problem in philosophy, but I do think our lack of exposure to women or other minorities in academia starts early and shapes our expectations and perhaps the classroom dynamic. This isn’t to say male philosophers or my male classmates are malicious agents with agendas to keep minorities out of philosophy. But recognizing the circumstances under which marginalized philosophers are conducting their work is important.
Philosophy majors are among some of the most well-meaning students on campus, second only to the heroes majoring in enology. We discuss the existence of G-d, abortion, infanticide — virtually all topics of passion unsuitable for light conversation — but I have yet to see a debate become uncivil. Being charitable and respectful are necessary to be a good philosopher, and our professors never fail to remind us of this. So why is it that at least once a week I hear my ethics professor remind my mostly-thoughtful peers to let her finish her sentences?
I don’t think the interrupting students are intentionally trying to derail women from speaking. I don’t think they notice when they do it, and this is why it’s so dangerous — too many of us don’t notice.
The cases we do notice are the obvious ones. When Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was silenced on the Senate floor in February, it ignited a firestorm. The hashtag-worthy stories get attention, and they certainly deserve it, but the fact is that anywhere women choose to speak we are faced with threats of interruption or silencing. Eliminating the more apparent injustices requires that we give equal and perhaps more diligent attention to the commonplace interactions conserving them.
And so I hope anyone who has heard someone stop an interrupter has been made uncomfortable. We should all be uncomfortable that women have to remind people to listen when we speak. We should be uncomfortable that our culture favors women’s silence and passivity. We should also be moved by our discomfort to do better by our peers and ourselves by being more conscious of the way we communicate.
As a more reserved student, consistently hearing someone I admire defend her own voice and the voices of others reminds me that when I do choose to speak, my voice is valued.
So I want to thank my professor for defending women’s voices. These moments don’t go unnoticed, and they have meaning.
Written by: Gabrielle Mark-Bachoua