At a recent Women of the Future event, foreign minister Julie Bishop described her experiences as a single female minister together with nineteen men in the cabinet of Tony Abbot.
“It was pretty lonely. I would be sitting in a cabinet with 19 men and me.”
Ms Bishop then related what seems to have been an all-too-frequent occurrence in the cabinet room. She would make a proposal or suggest a new initiative. The response of her male colleagues: “Nothing. Halfway around the room, a guy will say what I said – exactly my idea, exactly my initiative and the others will say ‘brilliant what a genius idea’.”
Ms Bishop then went on to label what had manifested itself on these occasions as ‘unconscious bias’, ‘a kind of deafness’.
In that respect she was almost certainly correct. Recent advances in understanding cognitive processes now offer a vocabulary which has entered the lexicon of business, politics and social interaction. What previously might have been dismissed as incivility or at worst over-competitiveness is now being recognised in many quarters as a fundamental problem of cognitive bias.
So common and unexceptional is this behaviour in meetings that a certain Nicole Gugliucci, an astronomer and professor, and a group of her colleagues have coined a word ‘hepeat’ to describe it. In their circle the following phraseology has become understood:
“I was hepeated in the meeting again today.”
Casual and repetitive demeaning of women in meetings is a consequence of in-group gender bias. This is not to say that women themselves do not harbour unconscious biases which, of course they do. And others, such as members of diverse groups find themselves being ignored in meetings or having their ideas usurped by entrenched white males.
But the fact that women are almost always in the minority when power plays are operating, creates a pernicious cycle which often results in women coming to believe they have nothing to contribute and choosing not to speak.
Another manifestation of this is the well-established fact that men repeatedly interrupt women who are speaking. This has been documented in a plethora of studies going back to the 1990s and is supported by innumerable anecdotes of women in business, on TV, in public forums and in various legislative assemblies worldwide being unable to finish talking as a result of male interruption. So much so that the New York Times recently described it as “a universal phenomenon”.
A number of stratagems have been suggested to help women to speak up, such as women reinforcing each other’s ideas if there is more than one woman present or women preparing in advance for what they wish to say. But these are just palliative measures. Bias must be understood, recognised and tackled across organisations at every level and in every type of interaction and men bear as much onus in this respect as women.
Much like rooting out inappropriate behaviour and overt discrimination, the elimination of the multiple harmful effects of unconscious bias can only come about when leaders walk the talk, when education on techniques to counteract bias is ongoing, appropriate systems are put in place to limit the effects of bias and importantly when unacceptable conduct is called out by men and women speaking in unison.
Are you being “hepeated” in meetings in your organisation?