To advocate equally for their constituents, members of Congress must be afforded equal opportunity to communicate their ideas.
But there’s a pattern to who does — and doesn’t — get that opportunity in Congress.
Women members are significantly more likely to be interrupted than men during congressional committee hearings, where most business in Congress is done — especially in Senate committees, where women are about 10% more likely to be interrupted, according to findings recently published in American Political Science Review.
Perhaps more strikingly, women are more than twice as likely as men to be interrupted in congressional hearings when discussing women’s issues, including reproductive rights, abortion and child care.
“According to our data, women fight through interruption by their colleagues for a full eight to 10 minutes of hearing time. Men fight through significantly less,” says Joe Sutherland, visiting assistant professor of quantitative theory and methods at Emory University and corresponding author of the paper.
“Women in Congress can encounter greater difficulty in getting their ideas across, because they’re being interrupted — especially in policy areas including women’s issues, where they can advocate powerfully on behalf of their constituents,” he says.
Sutherland and Michael G. Miller, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, examined speech patterns from more than 24,000 congressional committee hearings from 1994 to 2018. Using natural language processing techniques, the team analyzed 24 million lines of speech — a project that would have been much too labor-intensive without using the latest computing techniques to examine the massive sets of data.
“With natural language processing, we’re able to address data on a much larger scale and ask questions in a more productive way than before,” Sutherland says. “If you’ve ever watched a congressional hearing, you know members interrupt each other a lot. But this is the first statistical evidence we have, because research at this scale was until only recently too cost-prohibitive and time intensive to complete.”
What are the societal implications of women being interrupted at higher rates?
“We were surprised to find that women face greater interruption in the Senate. The Senate has a reputation as the world’s most venerated deliberative body,” Sutherland says. “Future research should consider looking into our other institutions, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, where women’s issues are at the forefront.”