Working women, tell me if this situation sounds familiar; you propose a great idea in a meeting, only to be met with silence. A few moments later, the same idea is praised when parroted by a male colleague. The New York Times may have dubbed “mansplaining” as one of their words of the year in 2010, but today, “hepeating” has become an even more pervasive problem in the corporate world. “Hepeating” – when a woman suggests an idea that is ignored, but when a man says it, he is praised – has the potential to be harmful to women by holding them back from being heard and recognized for their own work. Women must learn how to address incidents of “hepeating” head on, to feel comfortable contributing ideas, get the credit they deserve, and feel that they are valued and equal members of their organization.
I’ve experienced my fair share of “hepeating” throughout my career, long before astronomer Nicole Gugliucci first coined the term back in 2017. While I’m lucky to now work for a company that has a strong contingent of senior female leaders, this very real problem continues to plague workplaces across America. “Hepeating” is a symptom of unconscious bias, or learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional and able to influence behavior. The unconscious aspect means people don’t know they’re even doing it, which is not to excuse the behavior, but simply to highlight how hard it is to combat.
I know I’m not the only woman who has experienced an “Actually, I said that first,” moment at work. I hear the same stories from female colleagues about how their voice wasn’t acknowledged during a meeting, or how a male colleague took credit for an idea they suggested. Yet despite our shared anger and frustration, I’ve found that many women don’t know how to address these slights.
I was once one of those women. Early in my career, when I experienced “hepeating” at work, I said nothing. I didn’t even complain to my colleagues. I just sat silently, annoyed and frustrated. That was followed by denial. When one of my ideas, or an idea of a female colleague, was claimed by a male counterpart, I convinced myself I was imagining the situation. “It’s not them, it’s me,” I told myself. I know firsthand that it is easy to feel powerless, confused, and maybe even a little afraid to speak up in these situations. But I also know that women can break out of this cycle.
It is crucial that employees who experience “hepeating” have the courage to speak up for both themselves and other colleagues who face similar dilemmas. Making the problem known, and recruiting allies who will help, are important steps in creating a more equitable workplace. I also realized that to have my voice heard and appreciated, I needed to be both brave and bold, and that doing so meant pushing back against established norms. To do that, I accepted that I wasn’t always going to be liked at work, but that it was more important that I be respected, and I think that is a realization that many women need to come to terms with as part of their professional journey.
I will never forget a moment earlier in my career, when, after being “hepeated” by a male colleague during a meeting, a more senior female colleague said to the group, “I’d like to circle back to that idea Kim first introduced earlier.” The fact that she spoke up, validated my contribution, and acknowledged that it came from me is something that resonated with me throughout my professional life, and helped inspire me to advocate for myself.
While having female allies is so very important, it is crucial that we acknowledge that “hepeating” and other unconscious biases are a people problem, not just a female problem. I encourage female employees to inform their leaders, male or female, of instances where a colleague is taking credit for someone else’s idea, especially if it can be done in the moment. For instance, I recall being on another call where I was “hepeated,” and I decided to immediately send a sidebar instant message to a very senior male leader. I didn’t ask for validation, but I explained the “hepeating” that was taking place and asked that he reframe the conversation. A few minutes later, the senior leader jumped in, restated my idea and recognized me for the contribution. I not only found an ally, but I gained confidence to not only share more ideas in the future, and that my ideas were valued and that I was respected for them.
To overcome these unconscious biases that allow “heapeating” to take place, women must realize that their contributions are worthy and that it does matter who receives recognition for those ideas. Too often, women feel that advocating on their own behalf makes them appear selfish, needy or not a team player, but nothing could be further from the truth. While it is important that colleagues collaborate and work together towards a common goal, it is the individuals who speak up and are recognized for their contributions who are the ones that earn the biggest pay raises, are tapped for the most coveted promotions, are offered the most high profile assignments and important projects, and ultimately find the most meaning and satisfaction in their work.
So the next time a male coworker “hepeats” you or a colleague in a meeting, be brave, be bold and don’t be afraid to say “Actually, I said that first.”