Commentary: Harris-Pence debate: Stop interrupting women



If you’re a woman who has ever participated in any coed business meeting, you’ve likely experienced being interrupted and dismissed by a man.

And you probably weren’t surprised that it happens even to women at the highest levels of government and journalism, as we saw with Sen. Kamala Harris and USA Today Editor Susan Page during Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate.

Vice President Mike Pence talked over the candidate and moderator on several occasions, despite exasperated pushback from both ladies. Pence made it crystal clear his talking points trumped respect and decorum. He certainly proved once again that rules don’t matter in his world. Rules that he signed off on to participate in the debate, I might add.

“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking,” Harris said on one occasion with tactful resistance.

“I am speaking,” she declared firmly in several other instances, a phrase that has since become a rallying cry for women across the country who have ever felt marginalized and shoved in a corner by men.

If Pence is trying to get those suburban women voters who are still on the fence that the Trump team thinks is so important to their victory, acting like a narcissistic know-it-all wasn’t the way to do it. He hit a sensitive spot with women all over social media.

As one woman on Twitter saw it: “What stood out to me was that Pence felt entitled to be condescending to the female moderator by constantly violating the rules. He felt entitled to interrupt Kamala Harris. He felt entitled to try to control the topics. Women all over America felt his sense of male superiority.”

Another woman wrote this on the social media platform: “Kamala is giving me all the strength I need to interrupt inept men for the rest of my working life.”

Some smart men even saw the error of Pence’s ways. CNN analyst Van Jones, in a perfect description, called the vice president “mansplainer in chief.”

Sadly, others just didn’t get it. When CNN political analyst Gloria Borger tried to explain what it was like for women to watch Harris get repeatedly steamrollered by Pence, she herself was cut off by fellow panelist Rick Santorum, to which she cried out, “Mr. Santorum, I’m talking.” Oh, the irony.

Debates certainly come with some tension and fireworks, but when one side is not allowed to make their point that is not fair game. And while Pence doesn’t use the same bombastic language as his running mate Donald Trump, his measured tone didn’t make what he did any less insulting.

Unfortunately, Pence’s actions follow a typical pattern of men. A host of academic studies over the years have found that being shut down by men is not uncommon. A 2014 George Washington University study found men interrupt women 33% more often then men. A 2017 study by Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law concluded that “women on the Supreme Court are interrupted at a markedly higher rate during oral arguments than men. Additionally, both male Justices and male advocates interrupt women more frequently than they interrupt other men. In other words, women are more likely to be the interruptee, while men are more likely to be the interrupter.”

Interruptions are especially the case when women are outnumbered. And let’s face it, at certain levels of business, say corporate boardrooms, men are always the majority in the room. Remember when Arianna Huffington rallied to increase the number of women on the board of Uber and another male board member, David Bonderman, said that woman talk too much?

Harris kept her composure like most women are forced to do in these situations. You clench your jaw and hold back what you really want to say, or else you face the trope of being bitchy and overly aggressive — an unfair image that followed former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Black women face a double whammy of also being portrayed as the angry Black woman. We are supposed to smile and be cordial even when the other side is throwing verbal bombs.

I actually wish Harris would have pushed back more, but understand the delicate balance. As a former prosecutor it must have been pretty tough to hold back. And toward the end of the debate she did “reclaim her time” as Rep. Maxine Waters would say. She politely insisted to Page that she get “equal time” after Pence had cut her off one too many times.

And that is what we as women need to do to change the culture of how we are treated. We can’t afford to be invisible and must instead get past the fear of being judged and speak up even when it makes us uncomfortable. Even when it is the U.S. vice president.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Andrea K. McDaniels is The Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor.

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