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Celebrating the Professional Women We Know - And Some You Need to Get to Know
Would you rather have your achievements ignored or have someone else get credit for them? Throughout history, women typically have received a good mix of both. In an effort to ensure women were duly acknowledged for their accomplishments, a California education task force started Women’s History Week in 1978. Chosen to coincide with International Women’s Day, it was so successful that in 1980 President Carter announced March as National Women’s History Month. In honor of this, we’re celebrating the achievements of professional women, current and past, and looking at why women’s success has often been attributed to men.
We don’t have to look far to find women to celebrate. Covalent is a woman-owned business, and founder Stafford Wood has been recognized many times for her expert PR skills and infinite supply of creative ideas. We are also fortunate to have many female clients who are business owners or in top leadership positions within their companies. They include CEO Kathy Trahan of Alliance Safety Council, the second largest safety council in the U.S.; Melissa Landry, veteran strategist and founder of the successful communications firm Landry & Associates; and Anne Hindrichs, executive director of McMains Children’s Developmental Center, a nonprofit focused on providing quality therapy services for children.
Although we know many successful businesswomen, we also know there are still barriers for women in business. One reason can be attributed to the Matilda Effect — the tendency for female accomplishments to be attributed to a male colleague. Traditionally associated with the sciences, the Matilda Effect is a problem that affects women in all fields. This effect exists because historically our society has favored men. It ties into the Matthew Effect, the tendency for people of prominence to receive credit over someone lesser known. Basically, it’s a “the rich get richer” situation, and because our culture has long been skewed toward men, they generally have had more prominence than women and thus have received credit they haven’t always earned.
There are a ton of examples of this, but they’re so infuriating we’re only going to share a few here. You can dive down these rabbit holes of sexism at your own risk, so please proceed with caution.
$500 for you, millions for me
The board game Monopoly is credited to Charles Darrow, but it was created by Elizabeth Magie. Despite a patent on her game (which admittedly had the much less catchy name “The Landlord’s Game”), Darrow still successfully stole her idea. He made minor tweaks to the game and sold it to Parker Brothers and became the first-ever (fake) game designer millionaire. Parker Brothers did learn of Magie’s original idea, and they bought her patent for less than $500. With no royalties.
Katherine Johnson was a profoundly gifted mathematician who worked at NASA, where she was the only female team member. She successfully plotted the flight path for the first manned orbit around the Earth. John Glenn, the astronaut piloting the mission, trusted Johnson’s calculations more than those of the computer and refused to go until she personally confirmed everything was correct.
Despite being well-known within NASA for her brilliance, she wasn’t allowed to shine in public. She was routinely left out of briefings, had her name left off reports and the head of the Space Task Group refused to speak directly to her. She had to deal with sexism and racism, and it took years of persistent insistence to get her well-deserved credit. You can learn more about her story by reading Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. Or you can watch the movie version. We won’t judge.
My, what big lies you have
Margaret Keane is an artist famous for her paintings of people with big eyes, as well as her decades-long legal battle with her husband who falsely sold the artwork as his own. Keane learned what her husband was up to, but was silenced by his threats to kill her. Eventually she left him and revealed that she was the true “big eyes” artist. They went to court to fight it out, and proving that truth is stranger than fiction, they were ordered to have a side-by-side paint-off in front of the court. Margaret Keane won the paint battle and $4 million in damages.
Women’s History Month was established to help bring these types of stories to light. The Commission on the Status of Women successfully integrated women’s history into K-12 curriculums and the public consciousness. It has inspired many women-centric projects, such as Sheila Rowbotham’s study, “Hidden from History,” which investigated 300 years of women’s roles in history. The commission’s work has helped the push toward equality by putting a spotlight on the dark corner where women’s ideas and successes were hidden away. There’s no way to know how many life-changing ideas and contributions by women have been lost, ignored or appropriated, but this month-long celebration is a great step to ensure that women don’t lose any more.