The Great Imbalance
And the culture of credit-stealth in academia
A little past midnight, on 28th November 1967, at the University of Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Ph.D. student noticed a peculiar pattern in the signals received from the radio telescope that she had helped build for the past two years¹. She was afraid that these signals were nothing but disturbances caused because she had made the wrong connections between the wires. After months of parsing printed signals and checking every possible connection, she found another signal similar to the first one but from a different part of the sky. In no time, there were two more.
What Bell had discovered was a neutron star — a species of supernova remnants with extreme densities². Their very existence demonstrated that extremely massive stars, in their last stages didn’t blow themselves into oblivion. Instead, they left behind small, incredibly dense, rotating stars. Neutron stars are the smallest and densest observable stellar objects after black holes. It was considered one of the greatest discoveries of the 2oth century, in the field of astronomy.
A few years later in 1974, a Nobel Prize was awarded to Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish to honor the discovery³.
Yes, you read that right. Jocelyn Bell wasn’t recognized for the groundbreaking discovery she had made. Rather, all credit went to her Ph.D. supervisors Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish.
The big question that remains is — what was the reason behind the decision? Was it because the discovery was made by a student who was under a researcher’s guidance? Or was it because she was a woman? If one goes through the news, scholarly articles, and other similar instances from back then to more recent times, all evidence points to the latter.
As it turns out, women not getting the recognition they deserve for their work is not uncommon in the sciences. There’s no dearth of instances that prove the existence of such a bias in the research sector.
In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for describing the structure of DNA⁴. But the discovery wouldn’t have been possible without Rosalind Franklin’s work which resulted in one of the clearest images of the X-ray diffraction patterns of DNA, using X-ray crystallography. Without that, the “double helix” was just a theory. In fact, before obtaining these images, the working (and much-disputed theory) for the structure of DNA, was a “triple helix”⁵. Franklin and Wilkins worked on separate DNA projects, but by some accounts, Wilkins mistook Franklin’s role in the lab as that of an assistant rather than the head of her project. Technically, contributions to a discovery must be recognized irrespective of the professional position of the contributor. Yet Franklin’s work was sidelined, and all merit was attributed to the male leads of the project. Although Franklin had died by the time Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously; if or not Franklin deserved a Nobel Prize according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee still remains a mystery. But apart from the Nobel Prize, not a single other scientific achievement award went to Franklin’s name.
Yet another case, where a female scientist was deprived of recognition is that of Cecilia Helena Payne. In the first half of the twentieth century, Cecilia Payne studied the relationship between the temperature of stars and their spectral class using ionization theory⁶. Payne’s thesis concluded that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars, making it the most abundant element in the Universe -a contribution that is generally attributed to Henry Norris Russell, who came to the same conclusion four years later⁷.
The three cases mentioned so far are merely a subset of a huge list. Women researchers have been victims of credit-stealth throughout the history of scientific development. Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu, Margaret Burbidge, Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner, and Nettie Stevens are some names among many others⁸.
Some might argue that the conditions have changed considerably in the past couple of decades. But statistically speaking, even in the United States, according to recent studies (Education Rankings & Advice, 2016): working females own a greater share in non-technical fields rather than technical ones. While a relatively higher share of women is present in humanities (55%) and social sciences (53%), technical fields (21%)⁹ report a lower percentage of women. Although the number of women working in the research sector has improved over the years, the pace of change is far from what is needed in most countries, if not all. As a consequence, being a part of the minority, women in the technical-research sector fall victim to injustice and bias even in the contemporary world. This multifaceted issue of underappreciation of female work and credit-stealth has its roots in the residual regressive mindset of the past that has been carried forward. With a wider horizon of educational opportunities and a greater sense of self-worth, today’s women deserve absolute equality in all working environments.
Once women’s participation in scientific research reaches the point where the number of females is equal to that of males, a lot of the problems discussed will definitely be addressed. The journey to this point begins with encouraging more and more young women to pursue their love towards science and bringing to light all the amazing work that women are constantly engaging in. All we need is a peer support system so strong that every time there is an attempt to undermine a woman’s contribution, there is an entire army of fellow women that fight back for her, irrespective of where she comes from. If determined to do so, I am sure we can bring justice to ourselves and others. One woman at a time.
Yashasvi is a Campus Ambassador at AFH