Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

WORK ADVICE

What’s bropropriation? And how can you avoid it happening to you at work?

From Ada Lovelace to the White House, the problem of men stealing women’s ideas is rife, says Harriet Minter

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By Harriet Minter on

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in a meeting, coming up with an idea, seeing it ignored and then five minutes later repeated by a man to whom everyone immediately gives the credit? If you haven’t, then I can only assume it’s because you work in an all-female office or you’re lucky enough to have never experienced the hell that is a corporate brainstorming session. This phenomenon is so well known that is has a name – bropropriation: when a man appropriates a woman’s idea, either purposely or accidentally, and gets credit for it.

One of the woman most famously bropropriated was Ada Lovelace, the computer developer. She worked with the inventor Charles Babbage, together they came up with the idea for an “analytical machine” but it was Ada’s notes and ideas that took it from a one-off to the beginnings of computer programming. For decades, historians argued about who was responsible for these notes, with most of them assuming it had to be Babbage even though Babbage’s own memoirs give credit to Lovelace. And she is far from being the only woman this has happened to. The numbers of women who have been forgotten or written out of their own stories is horrifying. From Hedy Lamarr the actress who developed a form of radio tracking that was the beginnings of WiFi, to Katherine Johnson, the “human computer” who worked at NASA and helped put a man into space. Did you know that the original formula for Tippex came from a woman called Bette Nesmith Graham? Or that a weaver called Tabitha Babbit invented the circular saw? Or that in the 1970s one of the leading figures in the fight for workers’ rights was a woman called Jayaben Desai, a migrant from India who launched one of the biggest strikes of the decade after a manager compared her and other workers to “chattering monkeys”. 

Find a male ally who sees the problem and put him on bropropriation watch, getting him to point it out when he sees it

It would be easy to say this erasing of women from history is simply bro-culture gone wild, that it’s men’s faults for not listening to women and I’ve definitely sat in a few meetings where it felt like this was the case. However as I’ve got older I’ve come to the conclusion that  perhaps men aren’t doing this deliberately, or not all of them anyway. Mostly it comes from a culture where we encourage boys to speak up and girls to sit quietly. It’s what makes it easy for men to repeat an idea they’ve already heard without thinking it’s appropriation and what makes it difficult for women to say, “Hey! That was my idea!” when it happens.

So what can you do? In her book, Feminist Fight Club, author Jessica Bennett suggests the following: find a male ally who sees the problem and put him on bropropriation watch, getting him to point it out when he sees it. During Obama’s administration the women in the White House did the same thing for each other, whenever they saw an idea being bropropriated they would make sure the woman who said it first got the credit for it.

Personally I’ve always enjoyed the moment of loudly saying, “Errr, I think I just said that?” and watching the man in question try to wriggle out of it. What I’ve learned however is that this doesn’t always make you popular. A more tactful version is, “That’s exactly what I was saying, I’m so pleased you think it’s a good idea too. Now to build on it what I suggest is…” and then keep talking until the idea is completely linked to you.

It would be nice to think that we’re nearly at a point in history where both men and women will be too aware of workplace gender politics to let bropropriation happen, but we only have to look at the gender pay gap news to know we’re still far, far away from this. In the meantime, you either have to plot and plan your idea in secret until you have it in firm enough shape that you can release it to the world without anyone being able to steal it, or you need to take it somewhere else and sell it for more money. And it’s only when we all start doing this, when as women we say we won’t give our ideas away anymore, that we want recognition (both financial and otherwise) and that if we don’t get it then we’ll walk, that maybe the men will shut up and listen.

@HarrietMinter

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Photo: Getty Images
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