When Men Voice Women’s Ideas
The problem with women’s voices being ignored — and worse — taken in the workplace
By Rachel Havekost
Recently, a friend told me a story about a meeting he had attended that day at work, in which he verbatim repeated the idea of a female coworker, just to see if it would get taken more seriously. Spoiler alert: it did.
I asked him why he repeated her idea, and he said, “I started to notice that in all of my meetings, my female coworker’s ideas were literally getting ignored. It was almost as if when they spoke people didn’t actually hear them. But when I had ideas — even ideas that I didn’t think of as being that good, everyone congratulated me and agreed my ideas were good. So I wanted to see what would happen if I just repeated one of my female coworker’s ignored ideas, sort of as an experiment. I just said exactly what she said, right after she said it, and suddenly the office thought it was a good idea.”
I was shocked. How could this blatant gender bias still exist in the workplace? And how come no one else seemed to notice — or if they did — why didn’t they speak up about the clear wash over of any woman’s suggestions?
This got me thinking — was this an anomaly at my friend’s workplace, or was this appropriation of female ideas happening everywhere?
“Bropropriation”: It’s a real problem
I started doing some research, and I quickly learned that my friend’s experience was not an isolated one: this was an actual phenomenon. “Bropropriation,” as Jessica Fink coins it, is the act of a man repeating a woman’s idea in the workplace (2017, p. 84).
The University of Delaware conducted a workplace study and found that “men are given more credit than women even when saying the exact same thing” (“Women get less credit than men”, 2017). I started reading countless reports of women saying that their ideas were being ignored at work, only to find that a man would repeat her idea and not only get applause, but credit (Fink, 2017).
It turns out that when a man has an idea, it’s taken more seriously and perceived to be of more value. When managers give performance evaluations, men are congratulated for voicing ideas and making suggestions, and are considered “more helpful,” while women aren’t acknowledged for their ingenuity or helpfulness (Sandberg & Grant, 2015).
I also discovered that the female voice itself is considered to be less reliable. According to his study at Stony Brook University, Arthur Sumner found that a man’s voice is considered smarter and more reliable when compared to a woman’s voice (Sumner & Samuel, 2009).Whether this is a result of social conditioning or an implication of biology — it is clear that gender bias is deeply ingrained in the psyche, and evidence that even though we think we’ve come so far with gender equality, we still have a long way to go.
How ignoring female voices negatively impacts the workplace
Obviously, this seemed like a big problem to me as a woman. But is it a problem for employers?
It turns out that, yes, bropropriation is a big problem for companies.
One of the major implications of women’s ideas being ignored (and stolen) is that women stop voicing ideas altogether. Workplaces then lose female perspective, which is a valuable lens through which to see and solve problems. Research from Stanford University’s Claymen Institute for Gender Research found that women offer valuable team-building expertise, humanitarian strategies, and collaborative skills that are necessary for a holistic approach in the workplace (“How Performance Reviews Are Reinforcing Gender Bias”, 2018).
If women believe their ideas aren’t being heard (or worse, being taken) they are less likely to be motivated to generate novel ideas in the workplace. “The more women feel silenced or ‘man-terrupted’ or as if their ideas have been ‘broopted’ by male peers, the more they may doubt their real value in the workplace. They ‘shut down, become less creative, less engaged . . . revert into [them]selves, wondering if it’s actually [their] fault’” (Fink, 2017, p. 89). Not addressing this problem reduces the amount of creativity and innovation from a major source of creativity (Sandberg & Grant, 2015).
Another pitfall of female voices being misappropriated is morale and productivity. If the majority of women feel undervalued, unheard, and silenced in their place of work, it is very likely that they experience poor job satisfaction. “Women who repeatedly are praised and recognized in the workplace will be motivated to try even harder, while women who feel overlooked and ignored may see their drive and ambition diminish” (Fink, 2017, p.92). Unhappy people do not increase productivity: low job satisfaction and lack of recognition are key factors for employees desire to work hard, complete tasks, and achieve mastery. Research shows that “acquiring expertise in any area often requires recognition” (p.91).
Finally, retention is a major problem employers face with female employees who are undervalued, unheard, and ignored. Low morale, lack of recognition, and poor job satisfaction often lead women to leave their place of work. “Women who feel unappreciated and marginalized in the workplace not only may experience lower productivity and morale, but also might determine that their current field (or, sadly, any field) simply holds no room for female contributions” (Fink, 2017, p. 95). Women leave tech jobs at double the rate of men, and are cited leaving because they feel they aren’t given access to “creative roles” and feel like they have little room to grow (p.97).
What employers can do
Clearly, women not having their ideas heard is a problem. It’s a problem for employers, it’s a problem for HR, and it’s definitely a problem for women.
Research suggests that by facilitating better relationships between male and female coworkers, employers can create environments that foster support, better listening, and improved balance of idea-sharing (Fink, 2017). This opens the door for people like my friend, who observed his female coworkers being ignored, to start acknowledging ideas that otherwise go unheard.
To take this one step further, research also suggests giving credit where credit is due (“Women get less credit than men in the workplace”, 2017). If my friend had taken his experiment one step further and said, “by the way, this is Susan’s idea,” other people in the office would have observed Susan as being the creative idea source, not my friend. Through friendship building, better listening, and crediting the appropriate people for their ideas, it’s possible women’s ideas will go unheard less often, and fewer instances of “bropropriation” will occur.
A voiceless and anonymous feedback system could also be highly effective. Glassdoor suggests that anonymous feedback could give women “the chance to point out possible unintentional biases.” Not only does this offer employers the opportunity to recognize that gender sidelining is a problem, but it creates data tracking that links patterns of behavior to paint a bigger picture (“How Performance Reviews Are Reinforcing Gender Bias”, 2018).
Women’s ideas being ignored, silenced, and worse — taken, is a problem. Female perspective is clearly valuable: so valuable that when their ideas aren’t being taken seriously, they’re being taken. The problem is not that women don’t have good ideas and that we need to give them more opportunities to create them: The problem is that women’s ideas aren’t being taken seriously simply because of their gender.
This creates a domino effect of issues for employers, from productivity to morale, retention, and potentially legal issues. But more importantly, bropropriation is holding a mirror up to our society that thinks gender bias has been erased: it’s an indication of the subtleties of gender bias, the nuance felt by those who have historically been discriminated against, and the complexity of bias in the workplace.
The good news? Concrete solutions are in the works. Humanism is on the rise, and startups and endeavors are in place trying to find concrete solutions for calling out, tracking, and resolving problems that can seem difficult to define.
Fink, J. (2017). Gender Sidelining and the Problem of Unactionable Discrimination. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.3010235
How Performance Reviews Are Reinforcing Gender Bias: How Performance Reviews Are Reinforcing Gender Bias. (2018, December 22). Retrieved from https://www.glassdoor.com/employers/blog/how-performance-reviews-are-reinforcing-gender-bias/
Sandberg, S., & Grant, A. (2015, January 12). Speaking While Female. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html?_r
Sumner, M., & Samuel, A. G. (2009, February 23). The effect of experience on the perception and representation of dialect variants. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749596X09000096?via=ihub#!
Women get less credit than men in the workplace. (2017, December 13). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171213130252.htm