We were in an ideas meeting, in the development department of one of the biggest broadcasters in the world. Sat in an egg-shaped room in a newly refurbished state of the art building we chewed the fat, tasked with coming up with ‘the next big thing.’
In the room sat about thirteen of us. As a group, we were varied in age but heavily male-dominated. I was probably one of the youngest and definitely one of only four or five women.
Round and round the suggestions went from people more with careers far more established than mine. I’d heard it all before, big ideas about profiling famous politicians or world leaders. The ideas were voiced authoritatively, everyone in the room nodded and silently let the invisible thought clouds atrophy in the stale canned air. They were boring, we were bored.
‘What about you?’ a manager cast the room’s attention in my direction. Tentatively, I quietly voiced an idea about intergenerational inequality and the housing crisis. It was politely received but quickly dismissed. It rumbled on. So aware of my assigned role as the naïve and just eager enough junior staff member was I that I didn’t fight for my idea. Back then it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I was expected to interrupt people and tenaciously demonstrate the value of my thoughts to the point of being obnoxious.
Idea after idea fell dead in the water with varying degrees of splash. And then, another junior member of staff took his cue from the fading energy in the room and seized the moment. ‘What about something about intergenerational equality and the housing crisis?’ he said confidently.
Let me, here, preface what came next by saying that this person was, in fact, a dear friend of mine. I don’t think it was necessarily malicious but it was, certainly, conscious. The idea went down a storm. It developed tiny wings and started flying around the room like a celebrated Quidditch snitch, bouncing off the walls and doing tiny golden shits everywhere.
What happened that day, four years ago, is known as hepeating. It is the process by which a man repeats something a woman has said, which may have fallen flat or been ignored outright, and is then celebrated and praised for it.
It’s not a new phenomenon but the term has been coined on Twitter by the friend of a woman named Nicole Guggliucci. She defines it as ‘when a woman suggests an idea and it’s ignored but then a guy says the same thing and everyone loves it.’
It might sound perverse, but as I get older I have developed an odd gratitude for instances like the one above. I get excited when terms are developed by women to pin them down and nail them to the proverbial cross: hepeating, mansplaining, manspreading, broflakes. Why? Because the first few times it happens to you a creeping sense of despair gradually envelopes you in a mist of self-doubt. You no longer know which way is up and develop the social equivalent of snow blindness. If you’re not careful you’ll start flying upside down and crash in a ball of flames. It’s difficult to point out what is actually going on; paradoxically there are invisible and insidious forces at work but once they’ve set in their effects are glaringly obvious. Once you can identify the problem from a mile off it’s a lot easier to address it.
A good comparison might be climate change. We all know it’s happening, some people like to make a show of denying it, but once you look at the ozone layer, global warming or the increasing frequency of freak weather it’s clear that it’s happening.
Hepeating, like mansplaining, is confirmation of the sexist society we live in. It reinforces the patriarchy and what white men, in particular, are taught from a young age: they are told they are gifted with what linguist Deborah Cameron has referred to as a 'Divine Right to Talk' and, when they do, what they say is worth more than when somebody else says it.
Initially, when I encountered hepeating, I found myself quietly backing out of situations and taking myself out of environments where I had worked hard to be. That didn’t work because I had less work. Then I realised that I was aping conventionally ‘masculine ‘behaviour in an attempt to counteract workplace sexism. I was listening to feminists telling me to speak up, talk louder and fight to be heard. It worked but it was exhausting and it made me miserable.
It was not unlike what was reportedly going on in the White House when Barack Obama was President. Female aides started amplifying one another’s ideas, known as ‘shine theory’, in order to not only make sure their ideas were being heard but protect them from being passed off as someone else’s.
An op-ed written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in The New York Times on ‘Why Women Stay Quiet At Work’ in 2015, also discussed the problem. It opened with this anecdote:
‘YEARS ago, while producing the hit TV series “The Shield,” Glen Mazzara noticed that two young female writers were quiet during story meetings. He pulled them aside and encouraged them to speak up more.’
‘Watch what happens when we do, they replied.’
‘Almost every time they started to speak, they were interrupted or shot down before finishing their pitch. When one had a good idea, a male writer would jump in and run with it before she could complete her thought.’
‘Sadly, their experience is not unusual.’
The evidence is clear on this. Men and women’s behaviour and ideas are judged differently. Study after study suggests that for men, power is linked to the airtime they give their own ideas (like this one from Yale) and, more than this, it has been found that when men contribute ideas in meetings they are perceived as being helpful but when women do the same it doesn’t necessarily translate. This is down to one thing: gender bias when it comes to how we expect men and women to behave.
The real issue is not hepeating in and of itself, it’s that women are forced to change their behaviour in order to level the playing field, they have to adapt and modify themselves in order to be taken as seriously as the men they work with.
So, what should we do now that we’ve coined a term for this behaviour? One of the greatest things about mansplaining is how its usage has evolved. At first, it was used the identify the problem. Now it is used to call out the behaviour ‘you’re mansplaining’, ‘that was very mansplainy.’ In the future, perhaps, young men will be taught not to ‘mansplain’ from a young age.
Hepeating is the real-time everyday manifestation of sexism. Like mansplaining it reinforces bases and inequities. Women have been told to speak up and man up for years, let’s use terms like ‘hepeat’ to teach men to pipe down. We won’t see such behaviours die out until we do and it’s not the women whose ideas are being ‘hepeated’ that need to change. Nobody likes a ‘hepeater’ now, do they!
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.