Women in Science


How many female scientists can you name apart from Marie Curie? Now ask yourself how many male scientists you can name?

Last Saturday it was international women’s day.  Everybody seemed to be celebrating how far the battle for women’s rights has come, while trying to examine areas and ways in which there is still more work to be done.  Science as a whole is still a discipline dominated by males. We take a look at why this is, while also taking the opportunity to explore some of the most successful  and forgotten female scientists.

The disparity first becomes noticeable at university level. After having a fairly even number of girls and boys studying Sciences at college, many girls do not continue onto a Science degree. Only 20% of Physics undergraduates in the UK are female and this number shows no signs of increasing.  There has been a large push recently to try and address this balance; but in certain areas the numbers show no sign of future increase.

Some believe that subjects such as Engineering and Physics simply don’t appeal to girls and that on the whole their brains are not well suited to the skills these subjects require.  However, others argue that it is purely stereotypes and expectations that have led to this problem.

A large proportion of women who start off in science also then drop out.  Women who have been questioned claimed a lack of support was a key factor in them dropping out of a research career, especially if they had children.

When all this is taken into account maybe it will not surprise you to learn that only 16 women have ever won a Nobel Prize for Science over the past 109 years.  Although when you stop and consider that this is equivalent to 3% of the people that have been awarded a Science Nobel Prize, this is shocking.

One woman famous worldwide for her contributions to science was Marie Curie. Not only was she the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Science for her study of radiation, but she also remains the only women to ever be awarded two Nobel Prizes.  Her daughter, Irene Curie, followed in her footsteps and won the Chemistry Nobel Prize for discovering that radiation could be artificially produced.  Since then only one woman has won the Physics Nobel prize and two have won the Chemistry Nobel prize.

The rest of the female Science Laureates have all been awarded the Physiology or Medicine Nobel prize. The three most recent women to receive this Prize were Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi shared the award with Luc Montagnier in 2008 for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider shared it the following year for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

Even though these women did receive recognition for their work, there were many other women who were not given the credit they deserved. Some of the discoveries and achievements made by women in science were not credited with their name.  It seems strange that even now some of these women are often still not known for their successes.

One example is Vera Rubin. She discovered the difference between the observed speed at which galaxies move and the speed at which we expect them to move.  It was this observation that confirmed the existence of dark matter; she was also able to prove that 10 times more dark matter existed than previously thought.  At the time her work was dismissed by a large proportion of the scientific community. Even now that her work has been recognised and dark matter is a hot topic, she is still rarely mentioned .

The same was true for Celia Payne, who discovered which elements stars are made from.  Her male colleagues  claimed full credit for the discovery and she is still seldom remembered for her work.

These stories are not isolated; there have been several times where a man who worked with a woman on a large scientific discovery took all or most of the credit. One of the most famous examples being the discovery of the structure of DNA, two men (Crick and Watson) received a Nobel Prize for the discovery and many feel that it did not fully acknowledge the importance of Rosalind’s Franklins input.

Similarly the discovery of the sex chromosome was made by a pair of scientists named Nettie Stevens and Thomas Morgan, but Morgan was credited with the discovery and solely received a Nobel Prize for it.

In fact, there are many female scientists whose work was stolen or dismissed, so that they were erased (it appears may be permanently) from the history books. It is important that the mistake of ignoring or underestimating female scientists is not made again and that departments do try to not descriminate against anyone becuase of their gender, even if it is unwittinlgy. I personally think women should be more largely represented in sceince and have a lot to offer. Even if our brains may on the whole be more well suited to a slightly different skill set then males, this could make us all the more valuable. The majority of women may just not be intrested in persuaing a science carrer, but there are also lots of people who are put of by the stereotypes and sigma associated with a carrer in the Sciences.


Leave A Reply