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The long struggle for full representation of women in science

Daisy Cave exposes the misogyny faced by female scientists throughout history.

Society still has a long way to go in recognising true gender equality in science. There is an obvious need to address the lack of visibility, female role models and women in leadership. Despite the evident problems that still need to be resolved, advances by female scientists are at the forefront of current research – although this reality isn’t yet reflected in many textbooks.

The current status of women in science is unrecognisable compared to 100 years ago; prior to the 19th century, women were largely barred from accessing scientific training. The scientific achievements of those who were granted training have historically been overlooked. Many are only credited as ‘voluntary’ faculty members, merely associated with lead male scientists, or as illustrators and translators.

Three of the most prestigious scientific societies – the Royal Society of London, the Parisian Académie Royale des Sciences and Berlin’s Akademie der Wissenschaften – failed to accept female members for nearly 300 years after their establishment. Marie Curie was refused Académie Royale des Sciences membership during the same year she received her second Nobel Prize – in fact, the first woman was only accepted in 1979! This discrimination, which society is still yet to fully shake, was cemented in centuries of prejudice over women’s intellect.

Marie Curie

Charles Darwin is commonly presented as the ‘grandfather’ of evolutionary theory. However, his contribution to the barriers faced by women in science cannot be brushed aside. Darwin’s The Descent of Man: Selection in Relation to Sex promoted the view that gender equality was impossible to achieve due to the evolutionary-supressed power of women’s brains. His prejudices are littered throughout his writings: “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up, than can woman”, (Darwin, 1871). Beyond misogyny, the book also gave rise to the dangerous concept of ‘Social Darwinism’. This notion expanded the application of “survival of the fittest” to civilisation to support racist and colonialist beliefs, allowing the rise of eugenics in the 20th century.

Despite restrictions faced by women in science, they do not represent a demographic black hole in historical research. The Royal Mint’s recent release of a Mary Anning 50p coin is welcome recognition of a female scientific contribution, from a time when they were refused the same academic standing as male counterparts. But Anning is not the only historical woman in science worth celebrating. In the 17th century, Maria Sibylla Merian pioneered entomology (insect zoology). In 1879, Lincoln University appointed Josephine Silone Yates as USA’s first black female professor, where she taught chemistry. Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, Tilly Edinger’s palaeoneurology research countered the idea that organisms have evolved larger brains over time.

In addressing the barriers and lack of female visibility in science today, we need to start by acknowledging the past. Women have always been active in the history of science; now is the time for them to receive due credit.

Further resources about women in science:

Wellenreuther, M., and Otto, S. (2015) ‘Women in evolution – highlighting the changing face of evolutionary biology’, Evolutionary Applications, 9, pp.3–16.

Orr, M. (2014) ‘Women peers in the scientific realm: Sarah Bowdich (Lee)’s expert collaborations with George Cuvier’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 69, pp. 37–51.

From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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