Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for Vice President of the United States, faced off against current Vice President Mike Pence in the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. Harris is a woman of colour and the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. When facing constant interruptions from her Republican counterpart, Harris sent a powerful message to young girls and experienced women in academia alike: Women must be heard and taken seriously. Harris demonstrated that she is a strong who will not tolerate men interrupting her by using the phrase, “Mr. Vice-President, I’m speaking,” every time Pence tried to interrupt her. By invalidating Pence’s constant interruptions, Harris showed that disrespecting women in professional settings must end.
In contrast to Pence’s attempts to derail the conversation, the phrase “I’m speaking” served as a respectful way for Harris to assert herself. While some took to social media to call the repetition of the phrase to be obnoxious, it was its constant iteration that gave it so much power. “I’m speaking” was an inoffensive way for Harris to regain control without catering to the stereotype that women are overly emotional. A double standard undeniably exists between men and women in politics: When male politicians get angry, society characterizes them as tough and decisive, but when female politicians show any emotion, they are criticized for being too emotional. A 2019 study by Georgetown University showed that 13 per cent of Americans believe that men are better emotionally suited for politics than women. During the debate, Harris asserted herself in a way that did not further perpetuate this stereotype.
The way Harris firmly managed ill-mannered behavior from Pence set a stellar example of a woman standing her ground for women in all disciplines, especially in politics, where young girls do not often see themselves represented. Representation is key to encouraging more women to become involved with politics. Research shows that as female politicians gain more seats in the U.S. House and Senate, more women plan on running for office. This positive feedback loop holds true in Canada as well. Seeing women publically stand up to mistreatment from men empowers young girls to stand up for themselves and shows them that they should not tolerate disrespect. At school, women hesitate to speak up when they are being spoken over. Interruptions in class discussions, work settings, and personal lives are constant hindrances to women every day.
Women at McGill are no exception to being interrupted by men. Whether in conferences or in class, some women feel that they have to justify their place at McGill, despite having earned their spots. While this is common in discussion-based fields like political science, such experiences worsen in other male-dominated fields, such as engineering. A study co-written by Brian Rubineau, an associate professor in the Faculty of Management, found that many female engineering students are pushed out by a hyper-masculine culture in which women are regarded as less intelligent.
Female politicians are faced with multiple obstacles, but for women of colour, these barriers are exacerbated. Harris’ confidence and resilience shows the world that she knows she deserves the space and platform she has worked her entire life to claim, and that she will not allow anybody to take that away from her. Women in academia deal with this every day, and constantly have to prove that they deserve to be there alongside men who take up more than their fair share of speaking time. Harris’ words resonated with many women, and, hopefully, men too will learn to make space for women’s voices. The act of interruption is not always malicious, but when directed by men towards women in such a context, is invalidating in a way that men will never experience. As women like Harris work to have their voices heard, men need to start listening.