In April, after Katie Bouman “accidentally became the face of the black hole project,” it triggered a frenzy over social media. The phenomenon led to new discussions about how the contributions of women in science often get overlooked.
Behind Every Successful Woman is…Herself
Scour the internet, and you’ll find article after article about the lack of recognition of women in science. While movements such as #MeToo and TIME’S UP have been at the forefront of dialogue for roughly two years now, the battle for gender equality still has a long way to go.
History has traditionally written out the role that females have played in this field. Marie Curie may have been the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but that was in 1903. Since that time, the percentage of women (compared to men) who have been honored with the award leaves a lot to be desired. While we’ve made advancements, the fact remains that only 52 winners in history have been women; two of which were Curie (she won again in 1911 in the field of Chemistry).
The majority of females have actually won literature or peace prizes. In the field of Physics, where Marie Curie first won, there have been only two other women who have since been awarded the Nobel Prize. Maria Goeppert Mayer was honored in 1963 for her discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure and Donna Strickland’s inventions in laser physics earned her the recognition in 2018.
Certain factors play a role in the gender gap, one of which is what shapes a woman’s decision to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathmatics). According to UIS data, women make up less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers. Studies are moving past the numbers and are taking a closer look at why the disparity exists in the first place. Access to education, family, and workplace environment are all being taken into consideration and examined on an international scale. Discussion surrounds everything from lack of exposure and experience to STEM at a young age to bias, stereotypes, and unequal pay.
She Believed She Could, so She Did
Thankfully, steps are being taken not only to study what sets us apart but also to do something about it moving forward. Organizations such as AWIS (Association for Women in Science) lead as an advocate for women in STEM. The global network aims to inspire and create a fundamental change in the system.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is also working with the support of SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) on a global project to improve measurement and policies for gender equality in STEM. Their idea is to analyze data, identify gaps in policies related to gender, increase visibility and participation, and reduce the gender gap of women in STEM at all levels.
While a lot of the conversation today acknowledges what we have to do to create systemic change, it’s important to understand just how deep the gap runs. Throughout history, women are designated as mere footnotes in a male-dominated industry. As the Bouman story reminded us, it’s not only about the number of women in STEM; it’s about who gets the credit.
— UNESCO (@UNESCO) April 11, 2019
Another recent story in the headlines highlighted a team of students led by Emilia Huerta-Sánchez from Brown University and Rori Rohlfs from San Francisco State University, who were uncovering the work of women in the field of genetics. They went back decades to discover female programmers who made incredible contributions but had not been adequately acknowledged for their work. While some were thanked, it was their lack of authorship attribution that they found most troubling.
Yes, women earn a bit more recognition in today’s world, but the stories of women scientists who have purposefully been written out of history should still be honored. If not for these females who paved the way, so much of what we know would not exist.
2016’s “Hidden Figures” gave us a perfect example of just how understated this problem has always been. The film was nominated for three Oscars and won several awards, essentially giving proper credit to a team of African-American female mathematicians who so few people were aware of. How could this be? People who played a pivotal role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program and yet no one had heard of them? Katherine Johnson’s calculations of orbital mechanics were vital to our success in the space race in the ’60s. Why was the world only now discovering how instrumental Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were to our country’s accomplishments? Was it really going to take Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe to point out that we still don’t have an accurate account of how many women made such major scientific contributions in history?
While people continue to argue over whether or not bias exists when it comes to recognition, it’s up to us to tell the stories of women from now and then. As we push for advancements and breakthroughs for women in STEM, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves on what has come before.
The Fastest way to Change Society is to Mobilize the Women of the World
Social media gives us a platform to use our voices and make these topics “trend” in a way that is revolutionary to what we were once capable of. However, calling attention to the women of the present is only half the battle. We have, at our fingertips, the tools to research how we got here. As we plan for the future, our past is an indication of the steps we must make to forge forward.
Dare yourself to discover the female trailblazers who came before. Challenge yourself to read every article that introduces you to “the most important women in science.” Dig to find out what it is about our history, culture, and society that has placed women in the same role they’ve had for over a century.
Ask yourself how recognized women are in science. Then ask yourself what power you have to do something about it.