Women in Science- Do We Need to Worry About Gender Bias?

Women have long been battling for their rights – the right to work, the right the vote, the right to equal pay.  But is there still a gender bias in science? If you had spoken to me last week, I would have said that it was all media hype, and that the reason you find a larger proportion of men in higher up positions in the world of science is simply that more men seem to be interested in getting these positions.

After reading into the subject, I’m a little more fuzzy in my opinion.  A study in 2012 into gender bias looked at the employability of a candidate for a theoretical lab management position.  Applications were sent to 127 male and female professors to look at and assess, with each application being identical except for one key detail – half were told the applicant was called John, and the other Jennifer.  The key questions the researchers asked were whether they would hire the person, how competent they thought they were, and how much they would pay the applicant.  Whether the reviewer was male or female, the trend was the same: the professors were more likely to hire the applicant if they were male, they were thought to be more competent, and the salary difference was surprising ($26,507.94 vs $30,238.10).

The thing I found most sad about this study is that there is no conscious sexism going on here, and that we as women seem to also think that we’re less competent and less able than our male co-workers.  In my time at Newcastle University I’ve had the opportunity to be lectured by and to work with some really inspiring, independent, strong female scientists – it had never crossed my mind that they had to fight harder than their male counterparts to get where they were today.  But that also made me think, how many historical female scientists can I actually name? Which leads us quite neatly to the purpose of this article, in telling you about some inspiring women who may have fallen under the radar in the history of our craft.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Although she spent a lot of her life as a mere assistant or unpaid voluntary worker, only allowed access to these positions due to the notoriety of her husband, Maria Goeppert-Mayer developed the model for the structure of nuclear shells that we all learned about at A level!  As recognition for her part in this discovery, Maria was the second woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (shared with co-workers J. Hans, D. Jensen and Eugene Paul Wigner).

Rosalind Franklin

We all know that Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA.  But what many people don’t know is that their structure was based on x-ray diffraction data collected by Rosalind Franklin that was shown to Watson without her knowledge.  Drafts of her work were shown to independently describe B-form DNA with its phosphate groups on the outside, and work of hers is thought to be what prompted Watson and Crick to look into the backbone being on the outside of the structure, where they had previously had it running up the middle with the bases protruding out.  As is now common in science, the researcher who wins the research race gets the credit, and it was Watson and Crick who published on the subject first.

Photograph 51, Rosalind’s famous x-ray diffraction image of DNA

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner conducted work in nuclear physics and was monumental in discovering nuclear fission (simplistically this is where a nucleus is split into smaller parts, releasing energy).  She worked alongside Otto Hahn, and although she Hahn conducted many of the experiments that led to the theory, it was Meitner who explained the phenomenon.  The research was published without Lise Meitner as co-author and Otto Hahn alone won the Nobel Prize for its discovery.

And yet this is just a small handful of women who have laid the foundations for scientific discoveries that shook the industry.  Marie Curie and Jane Goodall are household names, but what about Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu, Barbara Mcclintock? Whilst sexism and gender bias are not as rampant as they once were, do we need to worry about how our gender will affect our working lives?  Have you yourself experienced gender bias as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)?

We need women in STEM, because research has no gender.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also like:

The Gay Gene and the Ethics of Genetic Testing

Memoirs Of A Microbiologist; 11 Things I Wish They’d Told Me Before Working In The Lab

Our Time With Ted




Maria Goeppert-Mayer- http://cdn.history.com/sites/2/2014/01/U1400329-P.jpeg

Photograph 51- http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/60251000/jpg/_60251254_photo-51-print-qp867-a4.jpg

Rosalind Franklin- https://askabiologist.asu.edu/sites/default/files/resources/articles/crystal_clear/Rosalind_Franklin_NIH_1024.jpg

Lise Meitner- http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/thisdayintech/2010/02/lise_meitner.jpg



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