When My Husband Stole My Idea – a case for minorities in tech

The Event

My husband and I work together. Since my role is to help all development teams with user interfaces and usability there are times when we work together on the design of a new feature.

One sunny and cool afternoon in April my husband and I attended a design meeting for a new feature in the application he works on. It was a brainstorming meeting where everyone was just throwing up ideas on a whiteboard. My husband suggested modeling this new feature around an existing user experience in a different application. Everyone loved the idea.

I sat there silent and astonished.

Flashback: The day before my husband and I were eating lunch together and he asked me for some user interface (UI) ideas for a new feature his team was working on. I suggested modeling it after a UI we already developed in a different product. The next day we were both invited to a design meeting with his whole team to discuss the design of this feature.

My husband suggested, as if it was his own idea, to do exactly what I suggested the day before.

What is a “Stolen Idea”

It has been well studied that under-represented groups (such as women in a software company) often have their ideas unheard or ignored until a member of the majority group (men in a software company) take ownership of the idea as their own. As in the case of my husband, I believe this is often done unconsciously by the idea thief and the group at large.

What I Did

I angrily (perhaps passive aggressively) texted my husband from my Apple watch during the meeting that he stole my idea. But he had no idea what I was talking about. He subconsciously remembered the idea I suggested from the day before but genuinely thought it was a new idea he had. Even after the meeting when we spoke about it, he had no recollection of us chatting about it over lunch the day before. It was not done out of a desire to overshadow or one-up me. It was a genuine oversight.

I followed-up with the team after the meeting to explain what had happened, and take ownership of the idea.

But why didn’t I say anything during the meeting? It was my husband for goodness sake. Everyone could have gotten a good laugh during the meeting.

I was raised to be polite. I was raised to be a team player.

If the team agrees on a good design, does it matter whose idea it is? – YES! YES! YES!

If you aren’t fighting for ownership of your ideas; for your impact on the team; for celebrating your individual achievements, unless you have a stellar manager your influence and value could be easily overlooked.

If it only happens once it might not be a big deal. However, this is a pattern that has recurred throughout my career. It is the small things, the paper cuts, that cause minorities to be overlooked for promotions or decide to prematurely resign.

What I should have done

Speak up! It’s hard for me in the moment. It’s easier for me speak up after when I can gather my thoughts and take the emotion out (can’t help my right brained nature!) The best response, in the moment, is something like –

I love that you were listening when we spoke over lunch.

I’m glad that you agree with what I said earlier.

Be a champion for others on your team. Recognize when their ideas aren’t heard.  Work together.

The best part is we can hold each other accountable. If you notice Jim stole Jane’s idea during a meeting you could use these exact same phrases to give idea ownership back to Jane.

I think it’s important to remember that rarely people consciously steal your ideas. So much of what we do is unconscious. Everyone, me included, needs reminders on what is happening and how best to handle it.

Be a champion for yourself and others on your team.

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