Let’s Hear it for the Women of Science
Who do you see when you picture a scientist? For many of us, thinking of a scientist conjures up images of white haired mavericks, from Einstein to Darwin to their fictional counterparts, like Doc from Back to the Future, or even Dr Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets. And predictably these stereotypes have something in common: they’re all male. But there is reason to believe that the way we think of scientists might be changing: a recent US study, the “Draw A Scientist” test, has found that more children draw women when they’re asked to depict a scientist compared to the same test performed historically 1. Successful women have been killing it in science for over a hundred years now and it’s exciting to see that perceptions are slowly but surely starting to catch up. Increased recognition of women in science means more female role-models, greater acceptance in the scientific community and further inspiration for future generations.
When it comes to the pioneers lighting the path for women in science, it’s natural to think of Marie Curie – the first female scientist to win a Nobel prize: first for physics, along with her husband Pierre in 1903 and then again for chemistry in 1911. But even then, Marie was still rejected from the French Academy of Sciences and it took decades for other women to be taken seriously in their work. In 1964, when Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel prize for her work on protein crystallography, the Daily Mail (in true Daily Mail style) lead with the headline “Oxford Housewife wins Nobel”2.
Though they are perhaps not a publication best known for leading the charge toward more progressive ideals, they certainly were not alone in underestimating female scientists. Barbara McClintock made discoveries about transposons – genetic elements that can jump from one chromosome to another during recombination – while researching maize in the 1940s. It wasn’t until male scientists, François Jacob and Jacques Monod made similar discoveries when researching mobile genetic elements in bacteria in the late 1950s that Barbara’s work was recognised. She even had to write the article pointing out these similarities herself 3.
In 1983, decades after her discoveries were made, she gained the first ever Nobel prize awarded to a woman independently. Other famous Nobel snubs include Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission in the 1930s, though only her collaborators received recognition, and Rosalind Franklin, whose work contributed significantly to Crick and Watson’s discoveries around DNA structure.
It’s not all doom and gloom and it’s worth remembering that a lot of hard work has gone into breaking down barriers and opening up opportunities for women in STEMM subjects (Science, Engineering, Technology, Medicine, and Maths). One initiative that promotes further employment of female students following their degree is STEM Women, which works with organisations to facilitate the recruitment of women and aids female students in networking with potential employers. Athena Swan, a charter established in 2005, encourages institutions to make a dedicated effort to enhance gender equality, and gives awards of bronze, silver or gold in recognition of good practice. In 2017, the John Innes Centre became the first institution to be awarded Athena Swan gold status across the whole of the UK. Closer to home, in March 2018, the Institute of Health and Wellbeing was awarded the University of Glasgow’s first departmental gold award.
More than just numbers, there are countless brilliant women currently working in science and inspiring as they go. This includes influential science communicators such as Mar Hicks, author of Programmed Inequality, which explores the historical gender imbalances in computing. Carolyn Porco, named by TIME as one of the 25 most influential people in space, has an asteroid named after her and consults on documentaries and science fiction films. Angela Saini authored Inferior, which addresses the biases that have led to questionable findings in research studies on women.
Another brilliant project celebrating women in science, Soapbox Science, was co-founded by Doctors Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli. Both are UK-based biologists who regularly write about the gender gap within the sciences, and have consulted on Parliamentary Enquiries. Soapbox Science events are held up and down the country every year, and more recently internationally, aiming to raise the profile of successful women and non-binary people in science while promoting their research to the public (the closest event for any interested GISTers is the 2nd of June in Edinburgh 20184).
Some of the presenters at these events have made a huge impact themselves. Goedele De Clerck, a researcher with the Social Research with Deaf People (SORD) group at the University of Manchester, presented at Soapbox Sciences in 2016. She shared stories from deaf communities, and explored some of the different challenges deaf people face and how they have confronted them. Her work investigates the emancipation and empowerment of deaf communities, and she has published internationally renowned books about sign language and epistemology (development and learning) in deaf people. However, Goedele not only studies deaf people, she is also deaf herself. When she graduated from Ghent in 2009, she was the first person in Belgium to ever defend their doctoral degree using sign language 5.
Despite the success stories, a gender imbalance remains in STEMM subjects. Many more women study life sciences at undergraduate and doctoral level compared with their male counterparts, but are still under-represented at high levels in academia. Reasons for this include short-term postdoctoral contracts and low job security at the stage when people consider starting a family. A gender pay gap still exists within many universities and academic institutions, often disproportionately affecting women who sit at the intersection of social biases, such as women of colour or those with disabilities. The University of Glasgow reported a gender pay gap of 18.2% in 2017 6, while the University of Strathclyde reported an overall gender pay gap of 24% for the same year 7. Furthermore, the proposed pension cuts that led to strikes by UCU members in recent months could, if enforced, lead to a greater burden bore by those who already face inequalities due to their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or disability 8.
Although children are drawing more female scientists than ever before, they are still predominantly depicting white men. Research into the ‘role model effect’ found compelling evidence that having female role models can signifcantly enhance aspirations of young girls and can positively influence their parents’ expectations 9.
While diversity in the sciences has increased hugely over the years, with initiatives such as Athena Swan helping people to carve out career paths that might have been inaccessible before, our perceptions still have some catching up to do. It’s important to continue to nurture initiatives that support all women in science: including transgender women, women of colour, women with disabilities, and women of all sexual orientations. Not only will this inspire a more diverse generation of scientists to come, it will ensure a healthier and more collaborative scientific community.
This article was specialist edited by Frances Osis and copy edited by Emily May Armstrong.
- Barbara McClintock, “Some Parallels Between Gene Control Systems in Maize and in Bacteria,” The American Naturalist 95, no. 884 (Sep. – Oct., 1961): 265-277
- read more about Goedele De Clerck’s brilliant work here: http://www.womanthology.co.uk/my-empowerment-journey-working-with-deaf-role-models-exploring-the-incredible-life-stories-of-deaf-people-dr-goedele-a-m-de-clerck-marie-sklodowska-curie-fellow-at-the-university-of-manchester/