Ah friends. We come to it at last…
the final installment of Manterruptions, Mansplaining & Bropropriations.
To the men who have followed this series… two words:
It takes a lot of courage to go into the belly of the gender imbalance beast in our culture. It takes even more courage to take on the perspective of someone else, and these pieces were definitely written from a woman’s perspective for a female audience. So I honor you and thank you.
To the women who’ve been reading, I’m curious whether you’ve tried any of the techniques described in the two previous posts. Have you observed dynamics at play that you might not have otherwise noticed? Leave me a note in the comments, or send me an email. I live for feedback.
Bropropriations: When Good Ideas Happen to Other People
First, a definition:
the action of a man taking credit for a woman’s idea, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Bro-propriation comes from the word “appropriation” which means: “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”
Unfortunately, this issue has surfaced in every single workshop I have conducted for women on the topic of communication. It happens like this: a woman raises her hand, shoulders rounded, and says “What do I do when a male colleague floats an idea I’ve already suggested, even in the same meeting, and gets credit for it and broad support. Even though I got zero support when I floated the same idea.”
The Current We Swim Against
Bropropriation is really just a symptom of a bigger issue. Gender inequality is the air we breathe, the current we swim against.
According to research featured in the Harvard Business Review:
· “Men get more of the critical assignments that lead to advancement than women do...”
· “On average the men’s projects had budgets twice as big and three times as many staffers as the women’s.”
· “...while more than a third of the men reported that their assignments garnered them a great deal of attention from the C-suite, only about a quarter of the women could say the same.”
In other words, bropropriation doesn't happen in a vacuum.
But here’s what I truly believe:
As with mansplaining and manterruption, I truly believe that 90% of these instances are completely unconscious on the part of our male colleagues. It doesn’t make these experiences any less damaging to our careers (not to mention sense of worthiness), but acknowledging this can take some of the rage and judgment out of the situation if you’ve had your idea cribbed.
(And to be clear, men who intentionally appropriate and take credit for a woman’s ideas are every bit as vile and toxic as the women who take credit for another woman (or man’s) idea.)
But if this kind of thing is woven, subtly, into the culture of business, are we powerless against it?
On the contrary. There is a LOT we can do.
FOUR Ways to Limit Bropropriation
1) Amplify, Amplify, Amplify. Fewer offices have thicker glass ceilings than the White House. Female staffers in the Obama administration came up with a strategy for making sure their voices were heard, and it is, as New York Magazine story’s headline says, genius. The female staffers’ approach was simple, but did require some coordination: When a woman made a key point, others in on the amplification strategy would repeat it, and give her credit. This created an impression with the men in the room, and gradually, the men moved out of an unconscious position of appropriation (or disregard) of ideas that came from the women in the room. The strategy also began to cement in the men’s psyches that women were sources of good ideas. Obama caught on, and began calling upon women more actively in meetings. If it can work in the White House, it can work for us in our offices and conference calls. Consider how you might build an amplification strategy. Who would you tap to be on your team? Male and female?
2) Hand the Mic Back. If you are in a position of leadership, and you notice that a female colleague has been interrupted, or has had her good idea largely ignored, bring the conversation back to her: “Laura was onto something here, and I’d like to hear what she has to say on this….” It doesn’t have to be hostile or patronizing, just a quick mic pass back to the speaker so she can finish her thought.
3) Up Your Game & Ask for Feedback. It can be enormously useful to study the communication style of those whose ideas are supported over yours. Are there ways you can work on your own ability to influence, to make a strong argument, or handle pushback that would improve your ability to sell an idea? What kind of energy are you bringing to the table? Confident? Secure? Open? Before we place blame on anyone else for stealing an idea, consider looking inward first and doing a bit of self sleuthing. Is there something I’m doing that is sabotaging my idea? Begin to notice your body language and tone. Two of my favorite sources of insight on the issue of nonverbal communication are Amy Cuddy, social scientist, TED speaker, and author of Presence. I HIGHLY recommend her TED talk on body language. Additionally, the brilliant Olivia Fox Cabane wrote a book called The Charisma Myth that offers very practical techniques for upping your non verbal game.
Next, consider seeking the feedback of those you trust. You might ask, “Just now in that meeting, both Bill and I came up with the same idea. I floated it first, and it was ignored. Bill floated it and it received support. What could I have done earlier to gain more support?” Make it clear that you are seeking feedback, and not pity or a venting session. This is key. Otherwise, you’ll get empathy but not a whole lot of new insight.
4) Pause & Check In
If you've been reading my blogs at all, you will see this strategy repeated. Because it is powerful, friends. A Pause and Check In might sound something like this:
“Hey, I’m confused about something.”
(That’s the pause.)
“That idea you floated in the meeting is a good one, and I believe it actually came from me. In the past, when I’ve had bosses or colleagues float an idea of mine, they’ll give me a nod. But you didn’t do that. I’m sure there’s a good explanation, and I just wanted to check in and talk about it.”
(That’s the check-in.)
There are two ways it could go: 1) Denial/Shaming 2) Apology.
Denial and Shaming. If the person reacts by making you feel bad for needing your idea to be acknowledged, you’ve been shamed and denied. If the person reacts by telling you “Team players don’t worry about getting credit…,” you are being denied and shamed. Now, to be fair, this person may not realize that giving people credit isn’t just good leadership, it’s actually furthering gender equality in the workplace. You might respond by sending the White House/Amplification article to him, and saying something like: “I think it’s possible to be a team player AND receive acknowledgment for good ideas. It’s good for women, it’s good for introverts, and it can help bond us as a team.”
Is it a bold move to push back on someone in a position of power? Yes. But it’s all about tone. If you maintain an unfailingly kind but firm tone, it’s much easier for the person across the table to take the feedback. If you allow anger, frustration or the great killer of dialogue—victimhood—to creep in, negotiations will break down, trust me.
Apology If you receive an apology, consider it a huge breakthrough, and consider sending the White House article as well. Let your counterpart know that this isn’t a dynamic unique to your business or your team. It’s everywhere. And we can make such an enormous difference if we stay conscious and work together. Add him to your Amplify team, and watch your relationship grow stronger and your team stronger as well.
As I’ve said from the beginning, this work is not for the faint of heart. It’s work that requires mastery over some pretty gnarly emotions: rage, frustration, confusion, shame, anguish. And by no means am I suggesting you ignore those feelings. In fact, I highly recommend having a core group of women you can talk to and lean on as you move through these experiences (I would be lost without my core group of allies).
The key is that as we do the work of creating a more just and equal society, we process those feelings with people we trust, and then return to the table to build new kind of culture at work (and beyond). That table requires us to bring empathy, creativity, patience, enthusiasm and the ability to assume only the best about the people across the table from us.
We are at an incredible moment in time. And by “incredible,” I mean literally, it is almost beyond belief given the recent election results. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to be the change we are seeking in the world.
It can be exhausting to be constantly swimming against the current. But as Malcolm Muggeridge once said,
“Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.”
And you, my friend, are not a dead fish.
You’re more like a shimmering, bad ass mermaid.
So I’ll see you in the water, sister.