What makes footage of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren getting manterrupted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a particularly painful sight isn’t just the fact that it happened, but that it happened on the floor of the U.S. Senate, a place that is supposed to welcome debate. Rare is the woman or girl who hasn’t experienced similar humiliation, but we usually don’t experience it on national television, where most people are on their best behavior.
Warren isn’t the type to cave easily, nor suffer the self-consciousness many women would feel in that situation. Yet the disbelief on her face, given all her accomplishments in life and despite being used to public confrontation, underscores that men talking women down can happen to any of us, and is not going away. So what do we do?
As an author who also writes middle school mysteries, I often speak in schools. Readers are often excited to share their ideas with me, and I love to hear them. But here’s the rub: At almost each school I visit, I’ll shout out a question. Should the person answering be a girl, it isn’t unusual for me to see her get boyterrupted. This stuff starts young.
Some teachers call kids on this and some don’t, but I do see the habit stop when the boys take care of the offender themselves. A quick elbow to the ribs and a one-time, loud “Shutup!” ends any need for an adult to step in. Boys want to be liked by one another. If their friends don’t like what they’re doing, they stop. The Senate could take a lesson. It would have been a great moment for both women and men to cross the aisle in the name of decency and support hearing Warren read Coretta Scott King’s words.
My previous work was on a Wall Street trading floor, where loud was synonymous with right. Men’s voices were often louder than women’s, so it was a manterruption-fest. Early Sheryl Sandberg lessons in ‘leaning in’ were being tentatively tried out, but most of us interpreted them as telling us to simply act more masculine. For most women that didn’t come naturally. Speaking over others gave us a better shot at being heard, but that is not the same thing as being respected. What did bring respect was the same thing those 10-year-olds picked up on: recognition that interrupting just isn’t cool and makes you look bad to the people around you. Manterrupters need to stop doing it, listen up, and respect their female colleagues.
When McConnell shut Warren down, it was the job of each elected official in that room, men and women, to bring the bro culture to a halt, to remember the elbow to the rib that some of them received in middle school. Failing to do so made disrespecting a woman quite acceptable, and that’s a shame to see in one of our most hallowed institutions.
Maureen Sherry is the author of Opening Belle.