Q: I am a midcareer woman, recently promoted to management. While I love my job and genuinely like my peers, I am getting increasingly frustrated.
At least once a week, I am in a meeting where I say something; my boss kind of nods; then minutes later or even immediately after, a man on the team (for example, “John”) says the same thing, and my boss says, “What a great idea, John!” This has even happened with ideas I’ve sent out via email: When someone brings up “their” idea in the next meeting, I am caught between letting it go and appearing petty by pointing out that I’d emailed that idea a few days earlier.
I was promoted as part of a restructuring, so I suspect there is pressure for everyone to look smart in front of the new boss. But the idea stealing is getting to me. How do I bring this up to my co-workers without hurting relationships? And how do I address the issue with my boss, who seems to “hear” some people more than others?
A: This experience is so commonly reported by women in the workplace that it has nicknames like “hepeat” and “bropropriation” — even though it’s not only men engaging in the behavior.
In fact, I — cisgender, straight, female — have been known to blurt out a “great idea” without realizing I was lifting it from someone else’s mouth. Likewise, it’s possible your colleagues are not deliberately poaching your proposals, but are, as you say, so focused on impressing the new boss that they’re not actively listening. Not ill intentioned, just inattentive.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse your boss’s — or anyone’ — inability to hear ideas pitched at feminine frequencies.
A simple “Er, I just said that” might be worth a try. But if you struggle with being that direct — or suspect your colleagues can’t handle your being that direct — you can try some subtler theatrics to keep others from stealing your act:
Claim the spotlight: Announce, “I have an idea about that …,” and then wait a beat until the majority of eyes are on you before you deliver your line.
Borrow the “Yes, and …” prompt from improv theater: “Yes, I was thinking that, too, and furthermore …” This works especially well if you’ve refrained from sharing your entire idea at once. With email, you can forward your original message with an updated subject line and lead: “To build on this idea we’ve been discussing …” The intro makes your message collaborative; the time-stamped email chain makes clear whose idea it was first.
Assemble an ensemble. In the Obama administration, female White House aides who were tired of being verbally trampled in meetings made a point of amplifying each other — immediately repeating each other’s ideas with attribution. They got their credit — and, most important, the president’s ear. Maybe you can reach a similar signal-boosting arrangement with like-minded colleagues.