Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Gender deafness is widespread, but can be cured

Jul 29, 2021 | Politics, Commentary, Democracy, Leadership, Equality, Opinion

Written by Marcia Devlin

Last week, Annabel Crabb’s outstanding ABC series Ms Represented included accounts from women across the political spectrum on what Julie Bishop called ‘gender deafness’.

Gender deafness is a phenomenon well known to women. It is the experience of a woman saying something in a meeting, being ignored or treated as if she hasn’t spoken, and then a man makes exactly the same point a few minutes later and is heard. Worse still, the man is often congratulated, even celebrated (and perhaps, on occasion, someone has offered to host a party for him) – such is the recognition of his brilliance as exhibited in the point he just made. You know, after a woman had already made that point, just before he did.

As a woman, it is likely that your ideas will be appropriated this way, or ‘bro-propriated’ as I now like to call it – the ‘bro’ being slang talk for ‘brother’.

When one of the ‘bros’ repeats a good idea you have shared a few minutes later and the room erupts into a chorus of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, it can be confusing. As many of the women on Ms Represented this week showed, a common reaction is to feel perplexed and ask yourself, ‘Did I not just say that?’. It appears you didn’t, because everyone in the room is congratulating someone else.

Another common reaction, particularly after one realises this is an ongoing and pervasive phenomenon that works to silence women, is fury. Every single woman I have mentored over the past couple of decades has experienced bro-propriation. Every. Single. One. It’s remarkable. And infuriating.

A few years ago, I’d had enough of gender deafness and I started calling bro-propriation out. I now do the following every time I see bro-propriation in a meeting: When a woman’s ideas are repeated by a man in a meeting, I say something like, ‘Great idea [insert man’s name]. I’m not sure if you heard it, but that’s exactly what [insert woman’s name] said just a few minutes ago.’

Sometimes when I do this, I get a response like, ‘Yeah but I think [insert woman’s idea]’ from the man. I politely wait for him to finish before repeating the point that [insert woman’s name] also thinks the same thing and said it a few minutes before he did.

Men don’t like this. I’ve been taken aside more than once after a meeting and had it mansplained to me that I embarrassed the man by doing this. I have then calmly and politely explained back that the man had appropriated the views of the woman and expressed them as his own, and I didn’t feel that was right.

Sometimes it is a man who calls bro-propriation out. I love these moments so much. They’re rare but they do happen. They let me know that things are changing in positive ways. I always follow up with these men after a meeting to note and acknowledge what they did, thank them and let them know their actions are making a positive difference.

If you’re a man and you want to help women at work, you could consider stepping in when bro-propriation happens. All you need to do is say something like, ‘Great idea, Dave, that’s exactly what Sophie said a few minutes ago.’ Dave will look confused. Too bad. After the meeting, you could help Dave understand that he heard Sophie say the same thing, processed it, and then somehow believed he just thought of it on his own. Either that, or he wasn’t listening when Sophie spoke, which is a bit rude. And a bit sexist.

This is an edited abstract of Marcia Devlin’s book Beating the Odds: A practical guide to navigating sexism in Australian universities. 

The excerpt is published with permission.

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