The Matilda Effect - the forgotten discoveries of female scientists

An analysis of the blatant sexism within the scientific community throughout history

By Emily Hayward

According to an UNESCO survey conducted in 2018, only 28.8% of researchers in the world are female, so it is no surprise that young girls struggle to find role models and inspiration to pursue a career in science. This is accentuated by the history of science being dominated by men, but in truth, there have been many women who have contributed across the spectrum, they have simply been forgotten.

Unfortunately, the lack of recognition for women’s scientific contributions has been prevalent throughout history. So much so that 1993 the term ‘the Matilda Effect’ was coined by Matilda Joslyn Gage in her essay ‘Woman as Inventor’. The effect is described as ‘a bias against acknowledging the achievements of women scientists whose work is attributed to their male colleagues’, and examples of this are present within every field of science.

Perhaps the most famous example is Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s research was essential in the discovery of the structure of DNA, but she was never given credit for her work as Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for the discovery. As it turns out, having died four years before the prize was awarded, Franklin was not eligible to win, as Nobel Prize awards are not awarded posthumously.

Perhaps a lesser known story is of astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In 1974, Anthony Hewish was awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of a neutron star called pulsars, one of the most important astronomical breakthroughs of the last century. However, it was Burnell who first observed the phenomena as a student at the University of Cambridge but was not credited in the research paper. In 2018 Burnell was awarded a Breakthrough Prize for her work, receiving £2.3 million in prize money which she chose to use to fund under-represented minorities to become physics researchers. This goes to show how far the scientific community has come over the last few decades, but according to Burnell, it still has a way to go.

Someone with a very interesting take on sexism in science is Ben Barres, a transgender (FTM) scientist who has experienced being in the scientific community both pre and post transition. A story highlighting this is after presenting his first seminar he overheard another man saying ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is so much better than his sister’s’ mistaking Barres before his transition as his own sister. This is a perfect example of cisgendered men have historically looked down on the research of those who do not fit the stereotypical image of a scientist.

These are just some examples of the sexism that women face in the scientific community, there are several other stories from women such as Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu and Ada Lovelace. The good news is that women are now being recognised for their work, including countless female researchers at the University of Birmingham, providing role models for young girls and giving them the confidence to pursue a career in science. Furthermore, female scientists have been credited for their work posthumously. The question that I leave you with today is: what would the world we are living in today be like if women hadn’t been overlooked throughout history?

From Issue 18

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