Nobel Women

12 August 2015

Can you name a living scientist?  What about a living, female scientist?  What about a living, female scientist who has won a Nobel prize?

Did you just name Marie Curie?  You lose.

In 2014, market research firm YouGov and grassroots organisation ScienceGrrl asked similar questions in a UK poll designed to boost female involvement in STEM jobs. Of the 3,000 men and women polled in UK, 68% named Marie Curie and 12% named Isambard Brunel as famous and still-living female scientists.

And they would have been right if Brunel wasn’t actually a man and Marie Curie had not been dead for over 80 years.

These surveys do not stand on their own and they are not confined to the UK.  In a study done by L’Oreal in 2009, 1,000 Americans were asked to name a famous female scientist. Of the men and women questioned, 65% were unable to name even one woman who had made a remarkable contribution to science.

However, the fact that we can’t name female scientists in our modern in society is not because they don’t exist. The past is littered with the achievements of female scientists, so why does our history not reflect this?

Education becomes stagnant when the same examples, born of a more male-dominated time, are perpetuated by mere laziness. When lecturers speak of scientific principles they often use textbook examples instead of acknowledging those neglected contributors who have been lost in time. When we speak of gravity, we think of Newton. When we speak of evolution, we think of Darwin. When we speak of DNA, we think of Crick and Watson. These men have become inextricably linked with such scientific principles, dominating the history of science with male discoveries and successes.

In my Neuroscience classes this year, only men have been used as examples.  There has been no mention of Hilde Mangold’s groundbreaking work on neural induction or the fact that she was robbed of a Nobel prize. This isn’t just limited to neuroscience, either. We know that Einstein was the brains behind the relativity of time, but we don’t know that Cecilia Payne discovered what the stars themselves are made of. While we know about Crick and Watson, we don’t know that it was Rosalind Franklin’s biophysical research that was critical to their Nobel prize-winning work. Textbook to textbook, our heroes haven’t adapted to changing attitudes towards women in science.

So part of the problem may arise from outdated education and part of the problem may be that women do not often receive scientific awards, like the Nobel Prize.  This could be for several reasons.  Firstly, women are often underrepresented in certain fields of science.  The US Department of Commerce conducted a study in 2011 that shows that women hold a disproportionately low number of STEM undergraduate degrees, and those that do hold STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation.  Secondly, in order to win a Nobel Prize you have to be nominated.  Rosalind Franklin, founder of the Franklin society, has made it her goal to secure more nominations for women in science.  She argues that “men tend not to nominate [women], and women don’t nominate themselves”.  One of the strongest arguments, however, is that often Nobel prizes are given for discoveries made decades before in order to ensure that the results stand the test of time.  This means that the awards are given to a society where science was far more male-dominated than the one we see today. These reasons could account for why a woman hasn’t won the Nobel Prize in Physics in over 50 years.

So if aspiring female scientists cannot hope to find contemporary role models from their lecturers, their textbooks or global scientific awards, where can they look?

There has been much progress in the inclusion of women in science over the years.  Women now outnumber many men in graduate and medical schools. At the University of Melbourne, women make up over half of all science students.  However, their representation decreases with every career step.  We need to start correcting history and giving our young female scientists role models who they can look to.  While sexism in science isn’t as overt anymore, subtle and subconscious biases need to be acknowledged and addressed.  The first step is making a deliberate effort to include great female scientists in our university curriculum and give them the heroic status they deserve.

So if you struggled to answer the questions at the beginning of this article, here’s a little help.  You really don’t need to look very far.  Elizabeth Blackburn, a University of Melbourne alumnus, won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her co-discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere.  Let’s remember the scientific contributions of women like Elizabeth Blackburn so that if a similar poll is ever taken in Australia, we won’t look as pathetic as the US and UK.

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