The Cosmic Companion
Apr 5 · 6 min read

Women in science have been traditionally overlooked compared to their male colleagues throughout history, limiting the scope and reach of scientific endeavors around the globe. Although great advances have been made in recent decades, the percentage of women earning degrees in sciences still falls far short of reaching half of all students and graduates. This shortcoming not only harms those who aspire to learn more about science, but it also hurts the quest for knowledge, as talent is ignored, simply on the basis of gender.

The earliest age in the drive for scientific knowledge which took place in Greece, Rome, and Egypt was dominated by men. One shining exception was Hypatia of Alexandria, a natural philosopher and mathematician who went on to become the last director of the Great Library of Alexandria. Her murder in the year 415 CE, and the final destruction of the greatest library of the ancient world, played a major role in the coming of the Dark Ages in Europe. Western civilization would not begin to recover from this setback for 1,000 years. Even then, it took centuries for science to, once again, become a way of life for a significant portion of the population.

Hypatia of Alexandria was, likely, the greatest astronomer and mathematician in the world during the early Fifth Century. Her murder helped bring the Dark Ages to Europe. Public domain image.

Science Returns with the Same Old Demons

The late 17th Century, the time when the second age of science was coming in fruition, was an era when the passivity of women was, largely, unquestioned. Nature itself was considered to be feminine, while the exploration of it was a wholly masculine ideal. The zeitgeist at the time considered the pursuit of science by women to be unnatural, and the purview of men alone.

The rise of early (largely misunderstood) Darwinism in the 19th Century gave rise to the idea that women were intellectually inferior to male scientists.

Charles Darwin helped develop early notions of evolution, but his notions of women proved to be far from revolutionary. Public domain image.

Charles Darwin himself was guilty of underestimating the intellectual capability of women, believing men to have naturally superior minds.

“Female inferiority was a logical conclusion of the Darwinian world view because males were believed to be exposed to far greater selective pressures than females, especially in war, competition for mates, food and clothing. Conversely, women were protected from selection by norms that required adult males provide for and protect women and children,” Northwest State College records.

Science, as a full-time profession, first came into being during the age of Darwin, but admission criteria for elite scientific institutions forbade women from joining for many decades.

Getting Noticed by Hiding in the Shadows

For a woman wanting to make her mark on science throughout most of modern history, the only way to do this would be to work with a male scientist (usually a husband or family member) to ride their more-socially-acceptable coattails into the public eye. Researchers without resources (especially financial) also tend to be lost to the pages of science. This unfortunate result of sexism and classism, known as the Mathew Matilda effect, was studied in depth by historian Margaret Rossiter.

In addition, the idea of science as a collection of facts, rather than the pursuit of knowledge, compounds the problem of sexism in science. Throughout history, the public has largely believed that males made discoveries, while women working on the project played secondary roles, as it was assumed women were better at organizing, while men carried out the experiments and research.

In 1923, an obituary of physicist and electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton took issue with her scientific work, stating that she should have spent her life feeding her husband and putting him in slippers, so that he could do better science. Even Marie Curie, possibly the most famous female scientist of all time, was accused of taking credit for work done by her husband, Pierre.

A Few of the Forgotten Women of Science

Mary Anning, a self-educated pioneer in the study of paleontology. Public domain image.

The history of science often overlooks the contributions of women, such as Mary Anning, one of the pioneers of paleontology. After digging up the first fossil of a Ichthyosaurus at age 11 in the early years of the 19th Century, she taught herself geology, paleontology, anatomy, and scientific illustration.

Lise Meitner worked on radioactivity, and played a vital role in how we understand the atomic world. It was Meitner who coined the term “nuclear fission,” which became a household word.

The structure of DNA was first deduced by Rosalind Franklin, before fellow researcher Maurice Wilkins showed her work to James Watson and Francis Crick. The three men won a Nobel Prize, While Franklin was largely lost to history. Today, however, the European Space Agency (ESA) is naming their new Mars rover in honor of the intrepid researcher.

The discovery of dark matter within galaxies by Vera Rubin showed evidence that everything we see in space is only a small fraction of everything that is there. We now know that this mysterious component of the Universe makes up 85 percent of everything in space that is not energy.

A New Way of Looking at the World Grows from the STEM

As women (and people of all genders) are becoming more accepted in scientific fields in the modern age, we can help undo the injustices which have been carried out on women. The rise in diversity also brings about new ways of looking at problems, promising a new age of scientific advances.

“Everybody supports diversity these days. Our hypothesis is that if you bring diversity to the team, you get diversity in the kinds of questions people ask. If people are asking new questions we might also get new participants,” explains Londa Schiebinger of Stanford University.

As late as 2018, an Italian physicist was suspended for his job at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) for stating that physics is a science built by men. A day later, his comment was challenged by physicist Donna Strickland, who joined Marie Curie in an exclusive group of three women who have won the Nobel Prize for physics.

The ExoMars rover from ESA, set to search the Red Planet for signs of life (past or present) has been named in honor of Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the structure of DNA. Image credit: ESA

“I wonder what Marie Curie would have thought of that. It’s a silly comment. Obviously, over the history of certainly the last 300 years, it was that men went out and worked, and women stayed home. Yes okay, that’s the way it was. But certainly it isn’t that women weren’t able to do it,” Strickland stated.

As we strive toward a more equitable age, where the contributions of women and others are acknowledged and celebrated, science is certain to thrive.

“Women make up half the population. I think the population is losing half of the human brain power by not encouraging women to go into the sciences. Women can do great things if they are encouraged to do so,” Ada Yonath, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, said following her win.

There is a long way to go, but by encouraging young girls to study subjects in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), we can all work toward a better time for science, feminism, and the world.

Alexandria Science

The e-magazine of science, from astronomy to zoology

The Cosmic Companion

Written by

James Maynard is the author of two books, and thousands of articles about space and science. E-mail: thecosmiccompanion@gmail.com

Alexandria Science

The e-magazine of science, from astronomy to zoology

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