Men, are you “really” treating female colleagues as equals?

Every summer, before the shenanigans of freshers’ week begin, first year psychology students receive their reading list. Somewhere in that list they will find the deliciously titled Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The book addresses our endless capacity for self-deception and the subconscious ways that we justify our behaviour without examining our motives. I commend it to every man in the workplace today.

Most women I know have endured the frustration of “hepeating.” While this ghastly neologism is an offence to the elegance and precision of the English language, the phenomenon it describes is quite real. A woman in a male-dominated meeting will advance an articulate and sensible idea, only for it to be thoroughly cross-examined by the men present and ultimately dismissed.

Some time later, perhaps a few minutes or even as soon as a few seconds, one of the men will advance the same idea. Cue vigorous nodding and noises of assent from the other men, accompanied by the thud of the woman’s palm hitting her face. I have observed this happen many times and, in keeping with the findings of Mistakes Were Made, I am certain that I have done it myself.

Usually (and I stress usually) this behaviour is unintentional and entirely subconscious. It often comes from the same men who read feminist literature, march for women’s rights and pause their careers to raise children while their spouse is at work. This is the very reason that such men will often splutter with indignation when accused of hepeating. “I couldn’t possibly be devaluing a woman!”, “I’m a feminist myself!”, “My mother was a woman, goddammit!”

The reasons behind this subconscious behaviour are doubtless complex and best left to the annals of behavioural science. From that Facebook post you’re writing to the flashy car you’re going to put on long-term credit, we all have hidden biases and motives in our actions and words, hidden more to ourselves than to others. Indeed there are plenty lurking in my decision to write this post.

Questioning all of our actions would be exhausting, that’s why mental heuristics exist, but we should all question a little more often. For men in a meeting room, our reaction to a woman’s ideas is a good place to start.