You’re having a conversation with your boss and you put forward an idea for a new project. You’ve thought it through thoroughly and considered what challenges might crop up, and how you would overcome them.
Unfortunately, your manager decides against your proposal and although you’re disappointed, you put it behind you. That is, until you hear your boss has gone ahead with another, flawed idea put forward by a male colleague.
The reasons why your ideas get rejected might have nothing to do with the ideas themselves. Behavioural psychology research shows that the rejection of our ideas may be related to unconscious biases people have towards ideas that are simply not their own. Sometimes, it’s simply the wrong time or there are other barriers, like money.
However, whether your ideas are endorsed at work can also depend on who you are. And if you’re a woman, you may have a harder time convincing your boss to back you up.
A recent survey of 787 workers by the recruiter Randstad UK found that 62% said women are less likely to get their ideas endorsed in a working environment than men. Only 31% said they were “as likely” and seven percent said women were “more likely” to have their ideas taken up.
Of those polled, only 28% said that the senior leadership team in the organisation within which they worked was an even mix of men and women. Meanwhile, just under a fifth (19%) said it was predominantly female. More than half (53%) said their organisation was predominantly male.
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“Nowadays, workplace misogynists are unlikely to boast about their views with colleagues or acquaintances because of the social stigma attached to holding such antiquated beliefs,” says Victoria Short, CEO of Randstad UK.
“As a result, their sexism has become covert. While such prejudice is unlikely to reveal itself in wolf whistling any more, it is still to be found in the sympathetic chat explaining to a female employee that her idea isn’t the one being taken forward.”
Women’s ideas aren’t just dismissed entirely, but often they are unfairly credited to women’s male peers. In 2017, US astronomer and professor Nicole Gugliucci coined the phrase “hepeating” on social media to describe the phenomenon. And while it is true that anyone can experience hepeating, it is a problem most acutely felt by women in male-dominated workplaces – especially women of colour.
The appropriation of women’s ideas and overlooking of their achievements is nothing new. It happened to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the 1800s. After her husband wrote the preface, it was widely assumed he was behind the novel. It also happened to mathematician Ada Lovelace, now widely known as the first computer programmer for writing an algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s.
And Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man" may not have happened without Katherine Johnson, who performed the NASA calculations that made possible the manned space missions of the early 1960s as well as the 1969 moon landing.
Moreover, the stealing of women’s ideas can have a lasting impact on their careers. Without being given appropriate credit for their insights or work, it’s easy for women to be overlooked for promotions and opportunities that are afforded to their male colleagues.
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This creates a problematic cycle in the workplace. When fewer women are promoted, there are fewer women in positions of power. In turn, this means more men in leadership roles who may be less likely to endorse women’s ideas – or give them credit when it is due.
In 2017, a study by the University of Delaware found that women get less credit than men at work, specifically when it comes to speaking up and being considered for leadership roles. On average in 10-person teams, the researchers found, men who speak up more than two-thirds of their teammates are voted to be the number two candidate to take on team leadership.
Kyle Emich, an assistant professor of management in the University of Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, said the team’s second study also found that “men are given more credit than women even when saying the exact same thing.”
"Of course, when I discuss this with women they are not shocked,” he added. “The most common reaction I get is gratitude that we finally have data to show something they have been observing for years. However, men are mostly oblivious. This is because they do not need to consider their gender in most organisational contexts, thus their unconscious biases remain just that, unconscious.”