The only way you learn how to flip things is to just flip them.” – Julia Child
Why does it matter when you use someone else’s work without giving them credit? Especially a woman’s work?
Until recently, I didn’t hear much about this problem for whatever reason. Then all of a sudden I felt like I was hearing about it all the time. It was this hurtful, annoying thing that kept happening, not only from men to women, but from from women to women, too (you know, people to people). Then I started to notice it. Then I noticed that some of the people who complained about this were knowingly or unknowingly doing this same thing to others.
People weren’t stealing each other’s work per se, but they were lifting their ideas without giving them credit. Or they were using another person’s language in a way that wasn’t plagiarizing, but was still totally shady. What keeps us from properly acknowledging each other?
Maybe one reason is that we all genuinely want to contribute. Or we get so enthusiastic about meaningful work, we focus more on just getting good ideas out there without worrying about where we found them. Or we want to appear smart, which is usually about wanting to show others quite simply that we care.
While we all tire of lists, here are three reasons to be sure to give women credit for their work whenever we can:
Women’s ideas and leadership have been systematically erased for centuries. We know this. So it’s good to make sure this doesn’t happen as a rule. It’s not about helping women get ahead (although that’s important). It’s not even about money (although sometimes it totally is and women need to get paid for their work). It’s about showing another human being and their intellectual work respect.
Women’s ideas aren’t just being erased due to everybody’s bias against women, and women of color especially, but women flat out aren’t being heard when they write and speak either. Soraya Chemaly’s, “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn”—a piece that includes a ton of interesting research—is still the best article I know on this phenomenon. Share it widely. Give Chemaly credit.
And lastly—perhaps the hardest to remember reason of all—is that while no idea is truly original, some ideas… well, kind of are. Some ideas and arrangements of ideas are brand new and the person best suited to forward those new ideas is the person who brought those ideas into being. When you take and use someone’s work without giving them credit, you water down their work. You prevent that work from having its greatest impact and in some cases even being found. You prevent their expertise and lived experience from being shared with more people. This is harmful to women, people of color, and every other marginalized group on the planet doing work that we all desperately need. On a human level, it’s also hurtful.
But since failing to give women credit for their work, intentionally and unintentionally, happens, let’s talk about it.
At Feminists at Work, to try to not recreate the harmful patterns we seek to change, CV Harquail and I practice a thing we call “feminist flips.” This is when you take a maddening thing in the world, big or small, and you just flip it. You turn the thing on its head and try something else that you know in your bones to be true (and more feminist).
Here’s the #feministflip I offer when it comes to not running with somebody else’s work without giving them credit and dealing with it when it happens to you:
1. Give credit. It’s simple, it’s professional, and it only takes a few extra minutes.
2. Ask to be credited for your work. If you’re a woman, know that every time you stand up for yourself and your work, you’re standing up for other women and their work, too.
3. Assume good intentions when someone appears to be using your work, but isn’t giving you credit. Reach out and ask them to do so. Keep in mind, too, that sometimes what feels like someone running with your work is just another person waking up to the same idea at the same time.
4. Similarly, reject knee-jerk competition. When you see someone else doing what you’re doing, consider this good news. You either have a new partner in your work or your work is going to get clearer and better. There is enough to go around.
5. Elevate the conversation of “giving credit to someone” to one about how entire communities of people (and their knowledge) get erased from history if we aren’t careful.
6. Trust abundance. Trust that for every person stealing your work, or appearing to steal your work, there’s a more positive connection or collaboration out there.
7. Keep doing good work, keep creating. Don’t let unfair behaviors get you down.
8. Focus more on changing individual and organizational behaviors and patterns and less on individuals and their actions. Don’t play into fear or blame, and don’t believe the story that work is all about individual careerism. Last I checked, most people care about other people. We want to give each other credit, support each other, and send each other in the direction of the real person who can help them.
Then again, the truth is always a bit in the middle, right? As much as I believe in acknowledging and honoring the work of women thinkers and do-ers, I know Caitlin Breedlove is spot on when she writes that from a social justice perspective, at the organizational level, “Most campaigns that spread like wildfire do so because no one organization is obsessing about getting the credit.” Read her piece, “5 Things that White-Led Organizations Can Learn From the Black Mamas Day Bail Out Action” in which she talks about how #BlackLivesMatter organizer and Southerners on New Ground Co-Director Mary Hooks was never interested in getting the credit. And then learn more about why the National Black Mama’s Day Bail Out Day was and is so important in Amy Goodman’s interview with Mary Hooks.