With the passing of this year’s International Women’s Day I thought I’d do a post on women in science. It seems strange to me that women are still underrepresented in science, especially as the majority of my fellow students are female. According to Science and Technology Australia, more women study science at university than men – but these women do not stay in the field. Recent studies have shown that we still face stark gender inequalities in academic science, sparking concerns that we may not be as equal as we would like to believe.
History is littered with stories of gender inequality and science is no exception. Only a measly 7% of Nobel Prize honorees have been women. Unfortunately there are many cases of women being passed over for the award in favor of their male colleagues. For instance, Rosalind Franklin, whose research led to the understanding of the structure of DNA. Three of her male fellow scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for the double helix model. Despite the fact it is clear Franklin made a meaningful contribution to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, her work remains unrecognised.
Lise Meitner was also forgotten as one of the contributors to understanding the process of nuclear fission. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded in 1945 to Otto Hahn. Meanwhile Meitner received no recognition despite her work with Hahn, which spanned 30 years, even though it had been she who had first described the theoretical process of fission.
Many other women’s names have been overshadowed by their male counterparts. Henrietta Leavitt research on the period-luminosity relationship helped us gain a better understanding of the universe. However she has been overlooked by history in favour of acclaimed astronomer Edwin Hubble, who used Leavitt’s Law to develop his theory on the expansion of the universe.
As I’m biased towards all things nature, as well as the field of science communication, I thought I’d also include Rachel Carson, zoologist and conservationist who aimed to educate the public about the natural world. Her book, Silent Spring (1962) is credited as launching the environmental movement. Yet this contribution seems to have gone unsung in the world of environmental science.
So… The past hasn’t been great to us women in science. But surely we are equals in the twenty-first century? Unfortunately the evidence seems to show that sexism is still present in the modern scientific workplace. A study done last year at Princeton University got faculty members from scientific institutions to rate the merits of two applications for a lab technician. The only difference between these applications was that they had either a male or female name attached to them. The faculty judged the male student to be more competent than the identical female student, who was overall considered to be less worthy of being hired. ‘She’ was also offered a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring.
So it seems we may not have come as far as we would like to have hoped. But by knowing the stories of the women who have gone before us, as well as the problems we face today, we might be able to change science so it will be better for those who follow.
There were so many women I would have liked to have included but I ran a bit over the word count! So I encourage you to have a look for yourself, if you’re interested. There are so many more inspiring and interesting stories out there! Here are some general sites where you can find some wonderful women of science: