Leadership

How to combat 'hepeating' at work, according to a Harvard professor

Every professional woman knows what it feels like to share an idea in a meeting and have it fall flat, only to hear that same idea repeated by a male colleague and have everyone applaud it.

Now it has a clever name: "Hepeating."

Astronomer and physics professor Nicole Gugliucci recently shared the term in a tweet that went viral within a few hours.

"[My friends] are women who work in various industries like tech, gaming and science, and we were discussing the phenomenon lately. One of my friends came up with 'hepeated,' and we thought it was pretty funny," Gugliucci tells CNBC Make It.

Gugliucci says she didn't intend for her message to go viral, but other Twitter users quickly rallied around it in agreement and chimed in with other similar phrases.

Even if these men don't realize that they are repeating their female coworkers' ideas, they may do so because of unconscious gender bias, says Harvard public policy professor and behavioral economist Iris Bohnet, the author of "What Works: Gender Equality by Design."

She says "hepeating" is a type of microaggression, which is a subtle, often unconscious, prejudiced comment or action against a person or group.

Bohnet offers a simple solution to combating "hepeating" at work: "micro-sponsorship," or the act of enlisting a few coworkers to advocate for you when you've been wronged.

"Become vigilant about attributing comments to the people who made them first," she says. "Everyone, men and women, can become a micro-sponsor."

Over a year before Gugliucci's viral tweet, New York Times gender editor Jessica Bennett addressed the idea behind "hepeating" in "Feminist Fight Club," a book detailing her research on gender-related workplace issues.

In it, she discusses "himitators" and "bropropriators," who also steal women's ideas at work.

"I don't think 'hepeaters' even realize they're doing it. This is deeply ingrained bias and years of culture that have long taught men to speak up and loud and with authority and the rest of us [women] to listen when they do so," Bennett says.

Similar to Bohnet's suggestion to combat "hepeating," Bennett says one way to make sure women are heard the first time around is to increase the number of women in the room and back each other up.

Another solution: Bennett recommends finding a way to casually remind the room that the idea began with you and confronting your "hepeater" in case he thinks he's doing you a favor.

"At the end of the day, giving rightful credit doesn't just help you, it makes your creditor look good, too," Bennett says.

Bohnet says both men and women can exhibit bias against other women in the office.

"Sadly, the gender of the observers only plays a small role. We all tend to associate authority and expertise with men and, thus, are more likely to listen to men than women," she says. "And of course, these stereotypes are constantly reinforced."

Gender bias plays out in how we expect men and women to behave based on what we have been socialized to believe, Bohnet says. That bias is challenged, for example, when we feel surprised by men who turn out to be more caring and by women who are more assertive than gender norms would predict.

Bohnet says gender biases affect everything from the language used in job ads to how job candidates are evaluated in interviews to performance appraisals and promotions.

"The evidence really is quite overwhelming, so I think the days are over where we could question whether this is real. It is," Bohnet says.

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