9. that’s a good idea Ms Jones WE WILL WAIT UNTIL A MAN THINKS OF IT

This is the manuscript blog; Best read in sequence so start with 1 and work your way through. Enjoy!

Every woman has had the experience of being involved in a mixed sex group discussion and volunteering information, an idea or a solution, only to have it go completely unnoticed. It’s as if she hasn’t spoken.

Within minutes – sometimes even within seconds – a man will repeat what she said, often in the very same words. And the group takes HIS contribution seriously.

I see this as the ‘That’s a good idea Ms Jones – we’ll wait till a man thinks of it’ syndrome.

In my youthful and more daring days (and only when I had taped the discussion), I went back to some of the men who had engaged in such behavior. No holes barred (it was a different time and place) and I asked them why it was that they had ‘stolen’ women’s words and presented them as their own?

With very few exceptions the men (often colleagues) were angered by my questions. They all denied they had done any such thing.  Most insisted that NO WOMAN HAD SPOKEN – and that the ideas were their own.

I always offered to playback the tape; some told me to ‘piss off’ and stop being such a nuisance, and a few just refused outright to listen. Those who agreed to hear the tape – were very nervous about it.

Once the tape was played back there could be no denial. It was clear that women had spoken and been ignored and that men had repeated the same words shortly afterwards and were even praised for their comments. Some were very surprised – and genuinely began to reflect on what was going on (I often taped sociolinguists!).

But there were always a few men who – when confronted with the evidence  – took cover by protesting that WHEN THEY SAID IT – IT MEANT SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

Unfortunately they were right. Men’s word carries more weight than women’s – and I have had enough experience of the world to realize that this is not because they are wiser or better informed. It’s because they are men!

This is an interesting issue that points to some of the ‘hidden’ barriers women face and which need to be acknowledged and challenged. I repeated this experiment on many occasions and there was always at least one man – sometimes the only man in the group – who would repeat a woman’s words that had previously been ignored.

The experience of making a suggestion and being completely overlooked is an everyday reality for many women and it is a good indication of women’s inherent invisibility (or the capacity to reduce them to non-existence; this is a routine experience for women but we don’t have a word for it!)

Even when a woman speaks she is not heard!

And sometimes she is not seen either.

There were times when I would specifically mention the name of the woman whose words had been appropriated  – only to be told by the man who had repeated them that the particular woman I referred to  – hadn’t even been at the meeting!

These are some of the reasons that I think that urging women to ‘lean in’, to adopt new approaches to negotiation, to demand to be seen and heard – is not as simple as it might seem. There are linguistic undercurrents – and customs – that can work against women, and which they may not recognize; but if their strategy doesn’t work they are liable to think that they have failed – not that the language odds have been stacked against them.

Hanna Rosin refers to ‘The Twitch’ – the response from men in power when women do assert their presence. A new version of the old term – ‘the backlash’.

I want women to lean in, to take up space, to be equally authoritative and credible when we speak. This means taking a much closer look at the language and the ways in which our invisibility and ‘wrongness’ is constructed.



  1. says

    I have had any number of ideas stolen by men. In a school I once suggested that the teachers’ reference library wold be better downstairs near the staff room. This was pooh-poohed. The next year when a man had my job as librarian guess what happened?

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