Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on January 11, 2021.
I recently watched “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix miniseries about how a young woman, through resilience and perseverance, advances in the world of chess to become the world champion. Her journey is a lesson in how women have fought against attitudes and cultural norms and have broken through barriers to earn their rightful place within their profession.
Even though the protagonist, Elizabeth Harmon, is a fictional character, the series accurately conveys the obstacles that many women faced in achieving their goals during the 1950s and 1960s. Attitudes have changed since then, but progress still needs to be made.
Harmon enters an orphanage at the age of nine after her mother is killed in an auto accident. She is taught to play chess by the janitor at the orphanage, William Shaibel.
When Harmon asks Shaibel to teach her chess, he responds, “Girls do not play chess,” but due to her persistence, decides to teach her how to play. As Harmon advances, she begins to beat Shaibel. Shaibel calls her astounding.
Watch the official trailer of The Queen’s Gambit
In 1963 while in high school, Harmon enters the Kentucky State Chess Championship. Harmon is told there is no women’s section, so she will be placed in the section for beginners. Harmon states she is not a beginner and asks if there was a rule prohibiting her from playing in the open section where rate d players compete, and she is told no. She responds, “Put me in the open.”
Harmon becomes impatient as she beats her opponents and comments, “I want to play the best.” She is told that if she wins her next three games and the top ranked players also win, she will get her chance to play one of them. She continues to advance through round after round at the tournament and once in the finals she faces off against the then-current Kentucky state chess champion and beats him.
When Harmon is interviewed by a columnist from Life magazine, she is asked, “How does it feel to be a girl, among all those men. … Isn’t it intimidating?” The interviewer continues, “When I was a girl, I wasn’t allowed to be competitive. I played with dolls.” This is an example of the low expectations of women of that time.
Years later, Harmon visits the orphanage after attending Shaibel’s funeral and finds that he had kept dozens of news clippings reporting her success as a chess phenomenon. The headline of one such clipping reads, “Not all women are stupid.”
Over the years, Harmon plays in numerous tournaments, rising through the ranks, with the goal of playing the then current world chess champion, Russian Grand Master Vasily Borgov. She loses to Borgov in Mexico City and Paris. Harmon gets a third chance to beat Borgov in Moscow and does so in dramatic fashion to become the world champion.
How did Harmon reach the pinnacle in a sport dominated by men? She accomplished it through hard work, a laser focus on her goal, an occasional touch of arrogance and a quiet confidence that she would succeed. When obstacles were in her way, she achieved what she wanted by being assertive. She gained control over a drug and alcohol problem, but it began to dominate her life following her second loss to Borgov. She received help from mentors along her journey and challenged the accepted paradigm of the day that certain pursuits were not the purview of women.
Harmon’s challenges were not much different than those faced by other women who trailblazed the path for future generations. I think back to 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. At the time, women were not permitted to participate in the event, so she registered using her initials, K.V. Switzer. Race officials tried to physically stop her from running. She recently ran the race again at the age of 72 using the same number as the first time she ran.
The film “Hidden Figures” depicts the societal and racial barriers that existed within NASA and U.S. society during the late 1950s. The film is about African American NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, engineer Mary Jackson and computing supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, who with courage and grace, earned the respect of their white male colleagues and played important roles in space exploration.
In 2016, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to the space program. In 2017, she was again honored when a new NASA computer center in Langley, Virginia was named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
I want my two granddaughters to be able to pursue any career that they desire, have the same opportunities as their male colleagues and not have their journey hindered due to their gender. These women blazed the path for them.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.