Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Esther Lederberg. Chien-Shiung Wu. Lise Meitner. Nettie Stevens. Ida Tacke. Henrietta Leavitt. Vera Rubin. Cecilia Payne. And famously Rosalind Franklin.
You might not have heard of these names before, and that in itself is a problem. All of the women listed above should have been credited for their groundbreaking work, but instead the multiple Nobel Prizes went to their superiors, mentors, or academic peers.
Let’s look at one of the names from above, Esther Lederberg. Esther was a biologist and geneticist, working closely with her husband Joshua Lederberg. Esther Lederberg helped to develop a technique to transfer bacterial colonies from one petri dish to another with her husband, yet when her husband won his Nobel prize, her contributions went unrecognised. Esther also faced sexism within her workplace; Stanford revoked her tenure and demoted her to Adjunct Professor, while her husband enjoyed a position as Chairman of the Department of Genetics.
For an aspiring female scientist, this is disheartening. And sadly, every single woman I mentioned has faced similar circumstances, each with their own injustice to add to a growing list throughout history. This effect has even been given its own name: The Matilda Effect. Defined as a bias against acknowledging the achievements of women scientists whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues, and relevant to every woman mentioned above.
So why does this imbalance exist? Traditionally women have been considered the weaker sex, or ‘second class citizens’. A woman’s biological role was often seen as synonymous with their social role: to have children and raise a family. In the early 20th century, a woman’s education was a temporary amusement before she assumed her ‘true’ role as a wife and mother. This meant many women stopped taking their secondary education seriously, as society told them to refocus their priorities. Eventually in 20th century America women gained some equality in the workforce through the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and different disciplines began, albeit reluctantly, to open their arms to women.
Sadly, the effect of this discrimination endured. Women were, and still are discriminated against in the working world. To choose one example (out of many) companies are often reluctant to hire women as they mistakenly believed that they would get married and leave; in other words, they are not viewed as permanent workers.
‘You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.’ -Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate 2007
So, has our situation as female scientists really improved? Yes, I believe so. Is the problem of inequality completely solved? This I answer with a resounding no. As an example, let us look at Tim Hunt, a Fellow of the Royal Society (of which women make up a minute 6%) and recipient of the Novel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This eminent academic states that the troubles with girls ‘in the lab’ ‘is: ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.’ Although these remarks might have been made ‘off the cuff’ they propagate an image of women which we have spent so long trying to dispose of. How can gender equality be achieved when people still promote the idea that women are merely a hindrance at work? If the women such as Esther Lederberg are in the laboratory conducting ground breaking research, not falling in love or crying when criticized, I find it sad that academics like Dr. Hunt must still belittle women to a distraction.
As a woman who wants to study science, this infuriates me. For the most part I am inspired by science, and reassured by the huge effort to promote STEM subjects to young girls. And yet at the same time, I cannot help but be a little dismayed by the fact that when I walked into a STEM lecture I was the only girl in the room. Whenever I here people say ‘Go back to the kitchen’. When I said ‘I am a feminist’ and people replied ‘but you already have equality’. Tim Hunt and Esther Lederberg have shown we haven’t achieved gender equality. But it’s heartening to see the situation improving, and more girls joining the STEM disciplines each year. Soon, I hope to be one of them.
Although women have faced misogynistic attitudes in science for generations, this has not stopped them making remarkable breakthroughs. And as I finish on a similar note to how I started, I ask you, what do these women have in common?
Hypatia of Alexandria. Margaret Cavendish. Laura Bassi. Charlotta Frolich. Caroline Herschel. Ada Lovelace. Florence Nightingale. Beatrix Potter. Elizabeth Bragg. And famously Marie Curie.