Theft of the Mind: When Women’s Ideas Become Men’s Triumphs

Smiling woman with big mirror in nature. The mirror is in front of her body reflecting nature, so it's like she was transparent.
Photo by Kalpit Khatri.

Generative AI — and more precisely ChatGPT and text-to-image tools like Midjourney — have prompted a flurry of strikes and pushback from visual and writing professionals. And rightly so.

The reason? Book authors, painters, and screenwriters feel that’s unfair that tech companies earn money by creating tools based on scrapping their work result of many years spent learning their craft. All that without acknowledging intellectual property or providing financial compensation.

They say that this is “the first time in history” this has happened.

I dissent. This has been happening for centuries — to women. Let me explain.

There are three reasons that typically come up to explain why there haven’t been more women artists and scientists through the centuries:

  • Women have been too busy with children and house chores to dedicate time — and have the space — to scientific and artistic pursuits.
  • In many cultures, men have been priorised to go to school and university over women.
  • To avoid bias against their work, some women decided to publish their work under a male pen name or to disguise themselves as men

But there is a fourth cause. When women’s outstanding work has been credited to a man. So although the work itself may have won a Nobel prize or be showcased in museums, libraries, and galleries, it has been attributed to a man instead of the rightful female author.

​Hepeating​: When a man takes credit for what a woman already said

Let’s review some unsung sheroes of science and art.

Science and art — a land with no women?

Let’s start with science

What about art?

Not enough? Mother Jones has put together ​an insightful timeline of men getting credit for women’s accomplishments​. Some gems

  • In the 12th century, “Trota of Salerno” authors a gynecology handbook, On the Sufferings of Women. However, until the end of the last century, sholars falsely assumed Trota was a man.
  • In 1818, “Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein anonymously. Her husband pens the preface and people assume he was behind it.”
  • In 1859, “after 10 years working with engineers to design signal flares, Martha Coston is listed as “administratrix” on the patent. Her long-dead husband is listed as the inventor.”
  • In 1970, “forty-six female researchers sued the magazine Newsweek, alleging that male writers and editors took all the credit for their efforts”.

And the uncredited others

  • ​Healers and midwives ​— Women were the original healers, using herbs and remedies to cure alignments and help with deliveries, contraception, and abortion. As no good deed goes unpunished, a lot of them would end up burning at the stake. How much of our current medicine is based on those uncredited healers?
  • Brewers — From the earliest evidence of brewing (7000 BCE) until its commercialisation, ​women were the primary brewers on all inhabited continents​. But who do you picture in your mind when you think of a “brewer”?

Our gendered standards of excellence

Above I shared some examples of women’s extraordinary work stolen by others (or conveniently forgotten).

But the problem runs deeper because we’re educated to consider men’s contributions extraordinary whilst than of women’s ordinary.

  • Let’s take parenthood. A woman takes her children to school — it’s her job. A man takes his children to school — he’s a dedicated father and a beacon for other parents.
  • A woman leads a project — she’s organised. A man leads a project — he’s a project manager.
  • Women are “cooks” and men are “chefs”.

And the list goes on…

What to do differently?

Let’s start acknowledging good work by women — and I’m very intentional when I say “good” and not “stellar” work.

At the same time, let’s stop glorifying each little thing a man does. Is really setting up the washing machine such a big accomplishment?

But how to overcome millennia of indoctrination?

Five years ago, I published a post showcasing a ​6-min TED talk from Kristen Pressner​ where she explained a practical technique to double-check our gender biases. It’s called “Flip it to test it!”

It’s a very simple method: When in doubt, flip the gender and see how it lands.

In practice

  • Would you praise John for taking his children to school if instead was their mother, Jane?
  • Would you diminish the role of Rita leading a project as simply being “a good team player” if Mike had led the project instead?

In summary, let’s purposely acknowledge the good work of women around us. We cannot overdo it — we have centuries to catch up on.

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