Editor: The Matilda Effect is Alive And Well

Recent events have provided a terrifying reminder of the injustices meted out to women in public life, be it in science, finance or politics

Ollie Smith 29 April, 2022 | 2:08PM
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It’s funny how your perceptions change. Rewind the clock 22 years, and you’d probably have seen me at my gran’s flat in Newcastle over the Easter break.

In between cold trips to Whitley Bay, The Spanish City, and the WH Smith in Gosforth, you might have found my brother and I playing board games.

Gran was something of a demon at (the 1986 edition of) Trivial Pursuit, but for those of us fed up with answering outdated questions about glasnost and The Soviet Union, there was always Monopoly.

As a kid I thought nothing of it. As an adult, I’ve learned Monopoly was originally designed with alternative intentions. Its direct antecedent was The Landlord’s Game, and that was invented by a woman. They don’t teach you that in school. They don’t teach you this either.

Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord’s Game to highlight the unfairness of land grabbing, and, moreover, to promote the idea of Georgism: that land and natural resources should be held in common ownership.

When inventor Charles Darrow and the game’s eventual distributors Parker Brothers got hold of it decades later, Magie’s original model – and influence – were forgotten. Darrow and the Parker Brothers got rich. Magie did not.

Men and Matilda

Magie’s story is one of countless examples of the contribution of women being torn from the history books by men, and it’s not even the most egregious.

It’s now widely accepted that the discovery of DNA's double helix structure cannot solely be attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick.

Largely erased from their work was the contribution of biophysicist and X-ray diffraction expert Rosalind Franklin, who was the first to photographically capture imagery of the phenomenon. When that evidence was handed to Watson and Crick (without her permission), it formed a crucial part of their work.

Watson supposedly only admitted this 40 years later, but not before he and his colleague had won the Nobel Prize and become world-famous. (Just to rewind that clock again, I now recall an early-2000s episode of Blue Peter that dramatised Watson and Crick’s work. Franklin was absent.)

There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the great science historian Margaret W. Rossiter called it “The Matilda Effect”, in tribute to the reflections of 19th-century suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

“A very slight investigation proves that patents taken out in some man’s name are, in many instances, due to women,” Joslyn wrote.

In short, then: women’s contributions are systematically undervalued, and at worst entirely dismissed from the record. To my shame, I have only learned about Gage by reading journalist Chloe Gray’s piece on the problem. They don’t teach you that in school either.

Something Doesn’t Add Up

What brings these threads together is a categorical disrespect for the role played by women in all aspects of public and working life. Sadly, that’s particularly relevant this week.

The last five days have been blizzard-like. Several MPs are now being investigated after telling a newspaper that Labour deputy leader and shadow first secretary of state Angela Rayner had used sexual tactics to distract the prime minister in the Commons. A Conservative MP is now likely to be expelled for watching porn on his phone on the government benches.

It’s some way removed from inventions and scientific discoveries, but this is the Matilda Effect in action. What is being stolen is not necessarily intellectual property (though that definitely still happens), but respect, time and power, and, by extension, economic power.

No wonder there are so few women MPs, women scientists, or fund managers. They’ll be underpaid, encounter abusive behaviour, or be told to “watch their tone” if they happen to utter anything perceived as even remotely threatening to a status quo shaped – monopolised – by men.

Or, more likely, all three. It happens in politics, and you can bet it still goes on in the firms that manage your money: in meeting rooms, in boardrooms, and at social events.

It starts even earlier than that, though, with girls told they can’t do it in the first place. The comments of the government’s adviser on social mobility this week ram that home for sure. Supposedly girls don’t take physics because they don’t like “hard maths”.

Thankfully, the comments have been roundly dismissed as irresponsible, but the damage is already done, because the problem is so profound. Pursuing its causes and addressing them requires honesty and self-awareness in equal measure – and that’s not trivial at all.

Ollie Smith is UK Editor at Morningstar

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Ollie Smith

Ollie Smith  is editor of Morningstar UK

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