The challenges of a job at the White House are tough and manifold, but at least one of them—the challenge of getting heard—has historically been tougher for women.
For one thing, there are fewer of them at the table: all presidents so far have been men, and among their top aides men have to date heavily outnumbered women. But another factor that weighs on how much women’s ideas get heard and credited isn’t confined to politics. Across sectors, and both in and outside work, women get interrupted more often than men—by people of both genders.
The interruption disparity, backed up by decades of research, is now so recognized there’s a word for it: manterrupting.
But at the White House, one former staffer explained to the Washington Post, women started using a simple rhetorical technique to stop interruptions and reinforce points made by other women. When a woman made a good point, another woman would repeat it, and give credit to the originator. This made the idea harder to ignore, or to steal. The women called the technique “amplification.”
“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it,” one of president Barack Obama’s former aides told the Post. “It was an everyday thing.” She said that Obama noticed and began calling on women more often.
The women, perhaps unconsciously, had noticed two things. First, that repetition is one of the simplest ways of reinforcing any point—which can be seen through history across oratory and poetry. But secondly, that simply hammering a point home by repeating it oneself has limitations, especially in a competitive environment where everyone is clamoring to be heard. Some researchers have hypothesized that women are interrupted more because their conversational style tends to be collaborative, where men tend to be more competitive.
The trick may have come about organically, but it’s by no means a given than women should support each others’ ideas that way. The presence of only a few women in a room historically gave rise to a different response, noted Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In:
In the days of tokenism, women looked around the room and instead of bonding against an unfair system, they often viewed one another as competition…women wound up being ignored, undermined, and in some cases even sabotaged by other women.
It’s a safe bet that many Obama staffers, and those who come after them, will have read books like Lean In and taken the lessons away. The ideas of cooperation they promote are already making their way into the wider workplace.