BUSINESS

Why It's A Big Deal That Google's Chairman Was Called Out For Interrupting A Woman

03/18/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015
Amy E. Price via Getty Images

A powerful male executive reportedly interrupted a powerful female official while she was speaking at a panel discussion at South by Southwest, the tech and culture love-fest currently happening in Austin, Texas.

That’s not unusual. Women often get interrupted while speaking on panels and in meetings, and studies show that women are interrupted at higher rates than men.

What’s remarkable in this case is that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt actually got called out for doing it -- by an employee of Google, no less.

Schmidt had reportedly been interrupting and talking over Megan Smith, the United States' chief technology officer and a former Google executive. Along with writer Walter Isaacson, Schmidt and Smith were speaking at a panel on innovation, and their conversation actually touched on diversity issues in tech, according to reports.

During a Q&A session after the panel, audience member Judith Williams, Google’s diversity manager, asked Smith how she felt about getting interrupted. Did she feel there was some kind of unconscious gender bias at play?

In her answer, Smith didn't directly address what happened, but she did discuss the issue more generally, explaining how she sometimes goes unheard at meetings, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Schmidt didn't say anything. Neither Williams nor any of the panel participants responded to The Huffington Post's requests for additional comment.

Others, however, had a stronger response. “The crowd cheered at [Williams’] comment,” according to PopSugar, which was one of the first to report on the exchange.

Williams leads Google’s unconscious bias training (yes, that’s a thing). More than 26,000 Google employees have gone through the training, she wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. The training, Williams argued, "has created a culture where employees are comfortable with -- and held accountable for -- calling out prejudice, both blatant and subtle."

Clearly, Williams herself is pretty comfortable calling out problems. Still, who knows what all those Google employees do with that training -- the company's numbers on gender diversity aren't so great. Seventy-nine percent of Google's leaders are men, according to the company's most recent diversity report.

“Google has a very open conversation on unconscious bias,” said Joelle Emerson, co-founder of Paradigm, a strategy firm that helps companies -- such as Pinterest -- increase diversity and inclusiveness.

Emerson told HuffPost that Schmidt's interruption of Smith on the panel wasn't unusual. She often hears complaints from women in tech about getting interrupted. “It’s a big problem in meetings,” she said. “It’s hard for me to get through a meeting without getting interrupted.”

"What was an aberration is that someone spoke about it,” Emerson said, noting that Schmidt likely didn’t realize what he was doing. In studies she's looked at, researchers sat in on meetings and measured the amount of time people spoke and how often they were interrupted. Most people had no idea they were hogging the floor and not letting their colleagues finish their sentences, she said.

Emerson works with companies to improve dynamics in situations where gender roles come into play -- not just in meetings, but in hiring and performance reviews as well. She said that one solution to the problem is to have a strong meeting leader or panel moderator who can rein in the interrupters and ask the quiet participants to speak up.

“Diversity trainings aren’t effective,” Emerson said. “You have to change processes.”

What happened at SXSW is a start. “Call it out when you see it happening. That’s a good first step," she said.

Women are more likely to get cut off mid-sentence, according to several studies. Most recently, researchers at George Washington University found that women were “the more interrupted gender” -- getting interrupted even by women. When men were talking with women, they interrupted 33 percent more often than when they were talking with men, the study found. Women were even more careless about cutting off women -- they interrupted 150 percent more.

“It’s not so much who’s doing the talking,” said Dr. Adrienne Hancock, who led the research, “just that they’re talking to a woman.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Emerson had conducted research on meeting participation. She did not. Emerson has studied that research.

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