Social Science

What does it mean to be a woman scientist?

Following the trajectory of women in the scientific narrative

July 18, 2016
This is the only photo in the Pixabay database that comes up when you search for “female scientist”—and it speaks volumes to the treatment of women in the sciences. You can’t even see the subject’s face, let alone actually tell if they are even female! Like many female scientists of yore, this stock photo subject has been left in the dark. [Image credit: Pixabay user skeeze | CC0 Public Domain ]

Growing up, my chemist dad and I treated everything like an experiment. We dipped flowers in liquid nitrogen and smashed them to see them shatter like glass. We made volcanoes with a funnel, some vinegar, red dye and baking soda. We grew bright purple and green crystals in the kitchen. For the first 19 years of my life, I wanted to be a scientist, just like my dad. In high school and then in college, I worked in various laboratories during the summer. And then something happened.

My sophomore year of college, I took a Shakespeare class, and lost myself in the study of sonnets and five-act plays. My parents were devastated — especially my dad.

When someone asks me how I ended up pursuing science journalism, I share this little anecdote. And oftentimes, I’m told that because I’m a woman, pursuing a career in science was a pipe dream in the first place, so it is no surprise that I changed my major to English — a better field of study for “the fairer sex.” That really ticks me off.

I read about plenty of female scientists as a young girl, and their stories of struggle in the pursuit of greater knowledge inspired me. It wasn’t easy to be a woman in science in the early days — even my idol, Marie Curie, had to work very hard to convince the Nobel Prize committee that she — and not her husband — did the research.

Even now, in a supposed era of gender and workplace equality, four times as many men than women follow the post-doctoral trajectory and become principal investigators — head researchers of their own laboratories. It isn’t hard to see why.

Stories of female graduate students and researchers being sexually assaulted by their male superiors constantly flood the news — like recent cases at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the University of Chicago. At both institutions, a male authority figure was accused of multiple cases of sexual misconduct, and in both instances, further investigation showed that these men had a reputation in their respective fields for such behavior and had never been severely reprimanded.

And there are even more cases where female researchers are denied formal credit for their work, with the award and glory going to their male supervisors and counterparts, like with Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Lise Meitner. Bell Burnell made an incredible astrophysical discovery, only for the credit to go to her supervisor. Meitner was a brilliant physicist, but her Nobel prize went to her male coworker.

Last January, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Eric Lander, created quite a stir when he published an article in Cell about the so-called “Heroes of CRISPR.” CRISPR is a new gene-editing technology at the heart of a current patent debate between multiple institutions that claim to have invented it, including Lander’s own Broad Institute (although he himself did not contribute to the project). Lander minimized the contributions of two of CRIPSR’s most important heroes — who also happened to be women.

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, both of whom made significant contributions to the development of this revolutionary gene-manipulation technology, were cleverly minimized in Lander’s article. He enumerated the various contributions of all the other parties who worked on CRISPR, particularly those of the Broad Institute’s employees, but neglected Doudna and Charpentier. The result was some disapproval from the biotechnology community — those who understood Lander’s conflict of interest as the head of the Broad Institute and knew of the significance of Doudna’s and Charpentier’s contributions.

Unfortunately, many women are written out of the scientific narrative, both in their time and after it, in some manner or another, “especially in biotechnology,” says Ruth Lewin Sime. Sime is a professor emeritus of chemistry at Sacramento City College and author of “Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.” There have been books dedicated to the phenomenon. But it is difficult to say why this happens—at least not without citing blatant misogyny and chauvinism, says Sime.

“You have to dig into the psychology of men not wanting to admit that women are their intellectual equals,” says Sime. “It’s all symptomatic of a patriarchal society that doesn’t value women’s bodies, let alone their minds.”

There is even a scholarly term that describes the phenomenon in which women do not receive due credit for their accomplishments—The Matilda Effect. The Matilda Effect applies to any field, but is especially present in the sciences, which have long been regarded as a “boys’ club.”

History is littered with cases of this Matilda Effect where female scientists do not get due credit for their accomplishments, says Pnina Abir-Am, a historian of science at Brandeis University. Some of these cases are more well-known than others.

One of the more famous cases happened about forty years ago, when RNA splicing was a big discovery, Abir-Am says. Seven researchers were competing for formal credit for developing the technology. There was a team at MIT that had two women and one man, and a team at Cold Spring Harbor had three men and one woman, she says. When each group published their research independently, a female researcher was listed as the first author. As any researcher knows, says Abir-Am, this positioning is important. Where your name falls on the list of authors in a scientific publication indicates the importance of your contributions. So first author equals most important—that is, who made the most significant contributions to the research.

Fast-forward twenty years to 1993: the Nobel Prize was awarded only to two of the male researchers, says Abir-Am, one of whom did not even have the technical skills to make the discovery.

“Most people think it is easier to be a woman in science in cities like New York, Boston, and Washington DC, than in Texas and Alabama,” says Abir-Am, “but a lot of the most powerful men in science are on the Eastern seaboard and they can make it very hard.” Quite a few men out there think “women are unsuitable for careers in science,” Abir-Am adds.

In many cases, says Abir-Am, award committees choose to focus on a lab director for prize consideration — which can be to the detriment of male researchers as well as female researchers. “I’m not against lab directors being included in these prizes,” she says, “but they should not be included at the expense of excluding more significant contributors, especially female scientists.”

This happens in part due to an antiquated system by which important commendations in the sciences, such as the Nobel Prize, are awarded, says Margaret Rossiter, a historian at Cornell University. There are many cases of “near-Nobels,” she says, because only three people can win a single prize. So if five scientists contributed to the research, only three can get Nobel recognition. As a rule, the boss often gets the credit, she says, because science remains highly hierarchical.

But like with every rule, there are exceptions.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurologist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986. The Prize committee tried to nominate men from her research group who had not made significant contributions to her work. But Levi-Montalcini adamantly refused to share her Nobel Prize with anyone, especially any men, says Brandeis’ Abir-Am — and she didn’t. Levi-Montalcini devoted her life to science, says Abir-Am, and she did everything for her love of knowledge — including never marrying. “She was treated like a queen in Italy because of her contributions,” says Abir-Am, “and she lived a long and successful life, dying two years ago at 103.”

However, exceptions like Rita Levi-Montalcini, who “refused to be a victim,” are unfortunately sparse in the narrative of women in science, says Abir-Am.

“What is happening now with CRISPR is not a new story,” says Rosalind Barnett, a professor of Women’s Studies at Brandeis University. “What is shocking is that this sort of thing is still happening.” But something good is happening too. “There are more young women pursuing careers in STEM every day,” she says, “and more of them are becoming important figures at research institutions in our country and around the world.”

But even so, it is still incredibly challenging to achieve success as a woman in the sciences. The very existence of Eric Lander’s “Heroes of CRISPR” article proves that.

No matter how brilliant you are or how hard you work or how much you achieve, there will always be people — often men but not always — who refuse to acknowledge the depth of your accomplishments simply because you are a woman. That needs to change. It is, quite frankly, unacceptable.

If there is a bright young woman in your life who wants to pursue a career in science, maybe the best thing you could do is give her a biography of Lise Meitner or Rita Levi-Montalcini or Jocelyn Bell Burnell (and hide the Shakespeare — at least until she gets her PhD).

About the Author

Jeanette Ferrara

Jeanette Ferrara hails from the outskirts of Houston, Texas. She is a recent graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in English literature with a concentration in Environmental Studies. At SHERP, she covered the medical beat and discovered a passion for data journalism and writing for children.


1 Comment

Shana Ferrara says:

Very well written article with much truth!! Thank you for the truth Ms. Ferrara. We have been living in a world where male scientists continue to have the upper edge. Your article exposes the bias and discrimination. Great work!!

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