History of women in science deserves heed

For some unfathomable reason, modern society in the 21st century seems to be stuck with the antiquated notion that science is a field primarily for men. While we have made visible breakthroughs in opening the doors of science and technology to talented women worldwide, an unsettling cultural bias seems to persist in the shadows of progress like a specter of a bygone era haunting us still.

For instance, according to a study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, women made up only 28.8 percent of researchers in the world in 2015 (UNESCO, “Women in Science,” 29.06.2018). With regard to the United States specifically, the U.S. Economic and Statistics Administration reported that women held only 24 percent of STEM jobs in 2015 (Economics & Statistics Administration, “Women in STEM: 2017 Update,” 11.13.2017).

The numbers become even smaller if one sorts the results based on a specific field of science. While 59 percent of graduates with bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences in 2016 were women, female

graduates in the U.S. made up only about 38.5 percent of physics degrees and about 18 percent of engineering and computer science degrees earned in that same year (Catalyst, “Women In Science, Technology, Engineer- ing, And Mathematics (STEM),” 01.03.2018). At the same time, women in America accounted for only 38 percent of economists, 26 percent of computer and mathematical scientists and nine percent of mechanical engineers (National Science Board, “Women and Minorities in the S&E Workforce,” 2018).

As discouraging as it may be, the gender gap in some of these STEM fields, such as astrophysics and mathematics, remains so vast that experts estimate that it may take more than 100 years before gender parity is achieved (Science News, “Closing the gender gap in some science fields may take over 100 years,” 04.20.2018).

Unfortunately, the fact that so few women are involved in STEM despite global efforts to encourage young girls to become leaders in science has led many smug and contemptible men to interpret this trend as proof that women just aren’t meant for the sciences. In 2017, for instance, a male software engineer at Google secretly circulated a 10-page manifesto within the company that argued why women aren’t drawn to STEM.

“I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership,” wrote the author (The Guardian, “Google staffer’s hostility to affirmative action sparks furious backlash,” 08.06.2017).

This isn’t an isolated case, either. Even after Google fired the engineer, other men have ex- pressed sympathy for the discharged employee. In response to the scandal, David Brooks of The New York Times commented that the firing was an example of ideology prevailing over reason (Scientific American, “Darwin Was Sexist, and So Are Many Modern Scientists,” 12.18.2017).

This type of noxious, arrogant mentality is, unfortunately, prevalent in the education sys- tem as well. Countless female students have shared stories where people have told them that they were just not smart enough for science. Examples ranged from male peers laugh- ing at the idea of a girl interested in robots and programming to a now-fired physics professor who purposely tried to fail his female students because he openly believed that women didn’t belong in the field of physics (Huffington Post, “These Stories Will Help You Understand Why It Can Be Hard To Be A Woman In Science,” 10.06.2014).

It’s honestly baffling how these “men are innately smarter at science” arguments keep multiplying despite mounting evidence against them. Numerous scientific studies from the past several decades have disproven this claim multiple times. For example, just two months ago in July, researchers from the University of Chicago found that there were no differences in mathematical ability between boys and girls at all stages of numerical development. The results of the study, which examined over 500 children between the ages of six months and eight years, made it clear that gender does not play a role in how proficient you are at math or other quantitative areas (Medical Xpress, “Boys and girls share similar math abilities at young ages, study finds,” 09.10.2018).

In another recent study involving 202 university students in an upper-level physiology class, researchers from Arizona State University found that there was no performance difference between male and female students regarding who answered more questions correctly and who had a better understanding of the material (The New York Times, “Do Men Think They’re Better at Science Than Women Do? Well, Actually…,” 04.07.2018).

In fact, the only observed difference was that male students were three times more likely than female students to think that they were smarter than their peers, despite similar scores. This isn’t even the first paper to point out such an observation. Nearly 20 scientific papers on self-estimated intelligence over the past 50 years have concluded that men rate themselves higher than women on self-evaluations (ScienceAlert, “Men Aren’t Better at Science – They Just Think They Are,” 04.10.2018).

So why are there so few women in the sciences if they’re clearly qualified to excel in them? There are many possible reasons. One line of thinking asserts that, due to the barrage of negativity surrounding women in STEM and the large gap in self-confidence between male and female STEM students, women may feel inclined to believe the harmful stereotype and voluntarily leave the sciences for fear of failure (Futurism, “Men And Women Equally Good

At Science, But Men Think They’re Better,” 04.09.2018).

The gender gap in the sciences is not an easy problem to fix, largely because the root of the problem is so tightly ingrained in our male-driven culture. However, there is one solution that may help uproot this pervasive mentality: normalize the idea of women in the sciences.

“Well duh,” you may say. Isn’t that what all the advocates for gender equality in STEM are doing? That’s true, and they’re doing an absolutely amazing job of inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. However, “normalizing the idea of women in the sciences” doesn’t refer to talking about how import- ant it is for more women to become involved in STEM. Instead, it’s referring to how we should be doing everything we can to make the notion of a woman working in STEM completely unsurprising. In other words, we need to persuade society that it’s absolutely ordinary and even typical for a woman to be a scientist or engineer.

Understandably, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, it makes sense to make the STEM fields as appealing to as many women as possible and advertise all the opportunities that are now available for women in the modern world. Of course, that method certainly works. How- ever, I think it’s also important to remind people, especially the younger generation, that a woman being active in the sciences is not some mind-blowing, revolutionary change that only just recently came about in the 21st century.

If you scour the Internet, you’ll find numerous stories and videos that feature prominent female leaders in science and technology talking about how they became inspired in their field. What’s noteworthy about these accounts is that most of them seem to stress just how rare and abnormal it was for a woman to be- come involved in science or engineering in the past.While this sort of message does emphasize the injustices that women have faced in access- ing proper science education opportunities, I fear that it may also unintentionally suggest that men so overly dominated the past several hundred years of science that there are only a handful of important female scientists in history. Unfortunately, the way our education curriculum is structured only serves to facilitate this fallacy.

Here’s a test: Think of a list of 10 female scientists who were alive before the 21st century. Now exclude Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin and count how many people you have.

If you’re like most people, your list is probably blank. According to a 2014 study by geologists Cynthia Burek and Bettie Higgs, a survey of over 1,100 people found that almost one in five participants could not name a single female scientist, alive or dead (Women In Science Re- search Network, “Public Perception of Women Scientists,” 2014).

Thirty percent of the participants could only name one female scientist in history. For 90 percent of that 30 percent of people, or 27 per- cent of the total participants in the survey, that sole name was Marie Curie. Ultimately, only 1.2 percent of the participants could actually name 10 female scientists (Women In Science Research Network).

The utter scarcity of the public’s knowledge about history’s female scientists and engineers is incredibly worrisome, not only because they remain unrecognized for their incredible accomplishments but also because it bolsters the perception of the sciences as a boys’ club. Perhaps this is why so many men today remain resistant toward the idea of women in STEM: If science has made countless world-changing advancements in the past when men completely dominated the field, then why should they care whether women enter an occupation that has already found incredible success with only men?

What these people don’t know is that, even in the past, science was not built solely on the backs of men. History is full of countless women who achieved groundbreaking feats in science, yet did not receive the recognition that they deserve simply because they were female.

Take astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, for example. Born in 1943 in Northern Ireland, Bur- nell attended the University of Cambridge for graduate school to study quasars, which are extremely distant celestial objects in space that emit a large amount of energy. In 1967, during her research analyzing the data on galactic radio waves, she noticed strange squiggles in the background signals of her data sheets. When she asked her mentor, Antony Hewish, about this phenomenon, he wrote it off as negligible human interference. However, that didn’t stop Burnell. After arduous work investigating the pattern and finding more pulsing signals across the cosmos, she realized that they were something completely new.

In essence, Burnell discovered the existence of pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation. To scientists today, the discovery of pulsars is considered one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century be- cause it proved the existence of neutron stars and showed that they could be observed. How- ever, the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics honoring the discovery of pulsars was instead given to Hewish, since Burnell was still a graduate student.

Only recently in 2018, Burnell was awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in science (The Washington Post, “She made the discovery, but a man got the Nobel. A half-century later, she’s won a $3 million prize,” 09.08.2018). Rather than spending it on herself, Burnell donated the prize money to fund graduate scholarships for people from underrepresented groups who aspire to study physics like her (NPR, “In 1974, They Gave The Nobel To Her Supervisor. Now She’s Won A $3 Million Prize,” 09.06.2018).

While Burnell was eventually recognized, the male-centered science world still refuses to acknowledge the accomplishments of many other women. Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who had previously discovered new radioisotopes in her research, invited German chemist Otto Hahn to team up with her to find a way to create new atomic elements (Famous Scientists, “Lise Meitner,” 09.27.2016). Together, they bombarded uranium with neutrons and became the first to discover nuclear fission with uranium in the 1930s, which set the stage for the creation of the atomic bomb. In 1944, while Meitner was trying to flee from the Nazis, Hahn alone received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

American Astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the researcher who discovered what makes up the sun and other stars in the universe (Documentary Tube, “Cecilia Payne – The Woman Who Discovered What the Sun was Made of, But Never Given Credit,” 05.11.2015). By accurately relating the spectral classes of stars to their actual temperatures using ionization theory, 25-year-old Payne determined in 1925 that the sun was made out of silicon, carbon and other metals and that stars in general are largely made up of helium and hydrogen. She was the person who first argued that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. However, fellow astronomer Hen- ry Norris Russell stopped her from publishing her results and then published them himself without giving proper credit to Payne.

The list of examples doesn’t come close to stopping here.

Early–20th century physicist Marietta Blau was the first person to develop a photograph- ic emulsion technique to study cosmic rays as well as the first to use nuclear emulsions to de- tect neutrons (Jewish Women’s Archive, “Marietta Blau,” 03.01.2009).

Microbiologist Esther Lederberg was a pioneer in bacterial genetics who discovered the lambda phage in the 1950s and paved the way to understanding how bacteria transfer genet- ic information. However, her husband took the credit for her work and won the Nobel Prize in 1958 (The Jackson Laboratory, “Invisible Esther: The ‘Other’ Lederberg,” 12.18.2016).

Experimental physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese immigrant turned experimental physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project in 1944 and helped develop the process for separating uranium metal into U-235 and U-238 isotopes using gaseous diffusion. When she co-established that the law of conservation of parity does not hold true during beta decay, only her male colleagues were given the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics (Atomic Heritage Foun- dation, “Chien-Shiung Wu”).

Geneticist Nettie Stevens conducted research in 1905 that was crucial to establishing the theory of sex determination. Her experiments with mealworms led to the discovery of sex chromosomes, also known as X and Y chromosomes (Nature, “Nettie Stevens: A Discover- er of Sex Chromosomes”).

Even as far back as the early 1800s, mathematician Ada Lovelace is considered the world’s first computer programmer (Biography, “Ada Lovelace Biography,” 04.02.2014).

As everyone should plainly see, women have always made revolutionary contributions to science and technology, even with the challenges they have repeatedly faced. No one should be surprised to see women in STEM, because they have been present in STEM all through- out human history. Yet, given how three out of four scientists depicted in elementary school textbooks are male, it’s little wonder that so many people aren’t aware that female scientists even existed in the past (The World University Rankings, “Male scientists ‘outnumber women 3:1’ in school textbooks,” 12.06.2016).

Everyone, especially the easily impressionable younger generation, needs to under- stand that it’s not peculiar or even atypical to see women working as scientists and engineers. Once we firmly instill this knowledge into our society, maybe then we will actually have a chance at closing the harmful gender gap that continues to plague the sciences.

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