For international women’s day, here at Shencoh, we would like to bring focus to the stories of women in science. Historically, women were barred from participating in science as they were with many things. We want to bring their stories to light, as well as the stories of women of the present day and the struggles still being fought by women in STEM fields.
In the past, the participation of women in STEM fields has not been wholly recognised. Perhaps the most well-known of these women is Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920 – 1958). Her doctorate is from the University of Cambridge and she worked in a range of research institutions and on a variety of projects. In 1951 she began to work at Kings College as a research fellow. She had previously worked in the field of X-ray diffraction technology, and this expertise along with her previous research projects led her to apply X-ray diffraction methods to the study of DNA. When Rosalind Franklin began to do this work there was still an unanswered question about the structure and the chemical make-up of DNA. Franklin started to the head a project that investigated this question using X-ray diffraction. She soon discovered the density of DNA and more importantly, established the helical formation of the DNA strand through the X-ray images she created. Without her knowledge or consent a college showed her image Photo 51 to Watson and Wilkins in another research institution. Watson and Wilkins then developed a model of DNA, which was almost completely based on the experimental findings of Franklin. They published their work in the Journal Nature, in April 1953. Franklin published her work in the same journal and issue. In 1962 Watson, Franklin and Crick received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work. Franklin did not gain a share of this award. The Nobel Prize is not given post-humorously; however her name is not noted in text books when they discuss the discovery of the double helix structure for DNA.
There are increasing numbers of women in science who are getting the recognition they deserve, with 48 women having received the Nobel prize, although a majority of these were awarded after 1960. The most recent was Frances H. Arnold, the 2018 Nobel prize winner in Chemistry for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes. The uses of her work include the creation of more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes including the production of renewable fuel.
In addition, an Elsevier report, spanning 20 years (1995 -2015) and covering 12 counties and 27 subject areas, shows a global trend of the increasing number of women in science, and women inventors, with women accounting for between 20% and 49% of researchers or innovators depending on the country. The same report reveals that in the UK there has been a 9% increase in women employed in science between 1996 and 2015; from 31% to 40%. However, in 2017 WISE reported that UK women make up 24% of those working in STEM industries. Some examples of women in science include:
• Fabiola Gianotti, who was one of the driving forces behind discovering Higgs Bosons at CERN and is now the director general of CERN.• Jackie Y. Ying, the director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore and one of the youngest MIT full professors when she received her professorship in 2001 when she was 35.
• Mary Jackson, a ‘human computer’ and NASA’s first black female engineer who was instrumental in the development of the USA’s space programme.
• Maryam Mirzakhani, the first women to receive the Fields medal, the highest honour a mathematician can receive, for her outstanding contribution to dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces, a special class of curved surfaces used in math and physics.
• Joanne Liu, physician and the international president of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), whose team was one of the first to respond to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea.
While there are improvements in the number of women in STEM fields, and that should be celebrated, there’s still a way to go for women’s place in science to be cemented. A UNESCO report that looks at researchers all over the world shows there is an increase in women in science, but overall women account for the minority of the world’s researchers of at 28.8% in 2018.
A potential reason for the lack of women in science may be that cultural attitudes towards women have not shifted as much as we believe, even in centres for higher education. An example of this is what Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize laureate,said to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea: ‘Let me tell you about my troubles with girls….three things happen when they are in a lab…You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.’ Though this is just one comment, it is indicative of the culture female scientist sometimes have to endure. The AAUW 2013 report goes in-depth into reasons why there are few women in science; social and environmental factors shaping girls interest and achievements in science and maths; and the college environment due to its bias against women at the unconscious level. The report shows that the stereotype of women being bad at maths persist today and this belief can measurability lower girls’ aspiration for a career within STEM fields. Overall the report concludes that the reason there are fewer women than men in STEM fields is because of our perceptions and unconscious beliefs as a society.
Additional issues that are emerging within STEM fields are not just the lack of women, but the lack of diversity of women in science and generally. This includes a lack of women who are working class, a part of the LGBT+ community, women of colour, women who are disabled, or a combination of these identities. The reason is that these individuals face additional difficulties within science than their white middle-class counterparts, who have historically been those with the smallest amount of inclusion within STEM fields. An Advance Higher Education report in the UK, reveals that all BME staff account for just 5.9% of academics, and only 3.9% of academics disclosing a disability. A potential reason for this is the additional struggles they have to face in addition to being a woman, such as homophobia, racism, classism or ableism.
There are steps that can be taken to increase the number of women in STEM fields, and to increase the diversity of women within STEM fields as outlined by the AAUW report. These include; the creation of mentoring programmes; increasing the visibility of girls and women’s achievement in STEM fields to challenge perceptions and unconscious bias; actively recruit women into STEM fields; give inclusive examples of what good scientists and engineers look like; raise awareness of the bias that exists for women in science and the negative consequences these can have; and lastly create transparent criteria for success.
By Karendeep Sidhu