Today we take a look at various women who have inspired us for their trailblazing efforts in science. We start with Dr Harriette Chick, who was a microbiologist, nutritionist and the first scientist to show sunshine impacts health. Particle physicist, Dr Fabiola Gianotti, is the first woman leader of CERN. You likely know Florence Nightingale for her contributions to nursing, but did you know she was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit, and the first scientist to develop graphical statistics? Astronomer Dr Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person to discover what the universe is made of, though few people understand her tremendous contributions to the field of physics. Did you know that the word “scientist” was invented to describe the research contributions of Mary Somerville? She trained as a mathematician, astronomer and historian. Finally, Dr Jane Cooke Wright was a “first” in many senses, as a Black woman physician, cancer researcher, and the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that only around 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women (1). Similarly, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration of the US Department of Commerce only 24 per cent of STEM jobs are held by women (2), with individual disciplines like Engineering having a significantly worse gender bias. There’s also extensive literature on biases against women in STEM (3), affecting all aspects of academia, including hiring, publishing, citation counts and teaching. Given these disheartening statistics, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before we can even start thinking about gender equality in STEM.
Why am I, a man in STEM, writing about this? Because to me these statistics also show another thing: men, who are dominating these fields, have an obligation to support women in STEM and help level the playing field. But how can men help to facilitate change and support women in STEM? All the things I try to implement are the result of listening to women – who sacrificed their spare time to educate me – and taking their advice. Thus, maybe the single best, most actionable thing is this: step back, shut up, give women space, and listen to them.
This 12 September 2017 is the 25th anniversary of Dr Mae Jemison’s flight on space shuttle Endeavour as the first Black American woman to travel in space. Dr Jemison began her career as a physician who served in the Peace Corps, before making history as an astronaut. To celebrate Dr Jamison’s achievements, let’s take a look at her contributions and the trajectory of other iconic women in spaceflight.
While there have been many iconic women pioneers in space travel, their ascent has been a triumph over gender inequity. Up until the 1980s, the media largely focused on women astronauts’ looks, making disparaging jokes about their femininity getting in the way of their missions. Thus they ignored the mental and physical stamina required to go into this field, not to mention the high level of education demanded of astronauts, who are qualified scientists. For example, the first woman to travel in space in 1963, Dr Valentina Tereshkova, did so after acquiring a Phd in engineering.
Only 50 years a go, astronaut John Glenn dismissed the scientific qualifications of women astronauts using biological determinism. He told a USA Subcommittee: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”
When University Of California (Davis) Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Professor Jonathan Eisen, was scheduled to speak at a meeting on Metagenomics in the Era of Big Data, he found himself in a bit of a pickle – or more to the point, a YAMMM. This stands for: yet another mostly male meeting. The male speakers outnumbered women 21:6. He considered his options. In the past, he has submitted a conference abstract in protest, A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings. He has also written to organisers and publicly called them out on their gender exclusion. This time, he considered not going, but then came up with a clever approach to tackling YAMMM.
The iconic photograph of the 1927 Solvay conference featured 29 stellar physicists and chemists, including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. When Professor Teresa Giraldez came across a historical photograph of nine leading women scientists, she was intrigued. Dated February 14th, 1980, this photograph marks a reception hosted by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (represented here by his Assistant Sarah Weddington). Here, Teresa tells us about the remarkable journey of these women who received high recognition at the White House.
The scientists portrayed in this picture were all born in the first quarter of the 20th century and many of them developed their career throughout extremely hard times: during or just after the Second World War (WWII). Interestingly (or should I say ‘sadly’?), tough times for society usually turn out into professional or social opportunities for women; this seems to be the case for some of the women in the picture. In the US, during WWII, the proportion of working women increased by about 15%. The reason for this increase was that many jobs, previously occupied solely by men, were now deserted–they had left to the war front. This situation was soon extended to the field of Science and Technology. For example, the United States Civil Commission, in its search for qualified personnel, “rebranded” many disciplines such as engineering (until then, mainly dominated by men). Thus, the Commission made it clear in its 1941 report that ”Feminine aptitudes may be well adapted to engineering design, testing, and inspection, research, preparation of plans and maps, and computation” (Calling women for federal war work, United States Civil Service Commission, 1941). However, most historians agree that this apparently auspicious achievement must be taken with a grain of salt: these women scientists were mostly hired in positions “according to their femininity”, often in lower level jobs and always as subordinates in the research teams performing research projects during the War. In most cases, it was expected that, after the War was over, they would stop working to go back to their ‘home duties’ (1, 2). While many women were hired during those years, only a few were recognized.
Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is the founder of STEM Women and is a science communicator with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Buddhini has authored a series of articles in Scientific American, titled “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” She provides science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube. Her science writing can be found at Jargonwall. Connect with Buddhini on Google+ or on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy
Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending a private event organised by Digital Science. It was a round-table discussion on what inclusivity looks like in STEM, led by the lovely Amarjit Myers and Laura Wheeler. I got to meet some insightful people who had great ideas for how we can move this conversation forward. We also looked at the ever-present issue of sexual harassment in academia. With Ada Lovelace Day approaching, I wanted to write down some thoughts I had on this broad topic.
Connecting with such a broad group of women, in diverse disciplines, all passionate about the same cause made me realise how easy it is in this day and age to ‘find your tribe’ online. We have so much access to communities and support, various networks and organisations (such as this one!) that help us navigate a system that has always had structural biases that disadvantage women and people of colour. It made me consider an earlier time, and how isolated and alone a woman in STEM would have felt navigating this. Many conversations with my own mother, who is now a retired professor of Chemistry, make me appreciate how much the environment seems to have changed.
Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is a professor and division head of Chemical Biology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this post, Professor Wittung-Stafshede goes beyond the progressive nation’s gender policies, to examine the everyday and institutional sexism experienced by women in science.
Sweden is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. We have the longest paid maternity leave in the world (16 months), and at least three of these months must be taken out by the dad. Sweden has free daycare, schools (including university), and afterschool programs. Swedes are very liberal in terms of household duties: men and women share a lot of responsibilities, and there are no stay-at-home moms. Based on this culture, I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken.