The Hidden Cost of Hidden Figures

hidden woman

Last year, the film Hidden Figures won critical acclaim for its portrayal of three African-American women who were deeply involved with helping NASA win the “Space Race” of the 1950’s and 60’s.  They were not recognized for their contributions at the time, and it’s only today that most of us are learning about their stories.

History is filled with hidden female figures whose accomplishments have been overshadowed or outright ignored. If you’ve never heard of Ida Wells or Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace, it’s no surprise. Despite making significant contributions to civil rights, science, and technology, they are rarely mentioned and remain largely unknown.

And if you think this is a practice of the past, consider this: just this week, in New York City, my very good friend took a lead role in a defamation trial which garnered publicity from a number of newspapers, including The New York Times, The New York Post, and others you’ve probably heard of. Although my friend was deeply involved in jury selection and witness preparation and conducted the vast majority of the cross-examination that helped lead her client to victory, when the stories were published, it was only her two male colleagues who were mentioned and quoted.

Another friend of mine in Washington D.C. worked tirelessly preparing a complex financial analysis presentation. She spent over 150 hours going through dense documents, building pivot tables, and ultimately presenting her work to the client. At the end of the presentation, her male boss took credit for the project and did not acknowledge that all of the substantive work had been done by my friend.

The experience of my friends is not unique. Research shows that men are more likely to receive the credit for the work and/or ideas of women. The practice is so common, it even has its own name: “Bropropriating,” defined as taking a woman’s idea and taking credit for it. Women are also more likely to be interrupted when speaking (by both men and other women) and more likely to be excluded from formal and informal networks that would help to give them more visibility. This all comes at a cost. When this occurs enough times, women begin to feel less engaged, less ambitious and just plain fed up. Detached and demoralized, women often scale back. This helps to explain why women are so poorly represented in almost every institution in society.

So, what can we do about it? For one, call out the problem when you see it. I wasn’t about to let my friend’s hard work go unnoticed, so I tweeted to the New York Times to let them know I noticed their omission. If you have a friend or colleague who you think deserves credit for a job well done, let other people know. When your female colleague makes a good point in a meeting, offer your praise and give her credit. If you see a male colleague bropropriating the idea, speak up and reassign the credit to where it’s due. These small actions can help to make people aware of their biases, which is the first step toward minimizing their effect. They can also help to make women and their valuable work and talent more visible, which will lead to more gender diverse environments where EVERYONE succeeds.


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