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Women In Stem? Since When?

By Maryann Makosiej

Do you know the story behind the discovery of DNA? In class, it might be that James Watson, an American biologist, and Francis Crick, an English physicist, used x-rays and light (in a process known as “x-ray crystallography”) to deduce its structure. If you read the paper they published in Nature, a scientific journal, in 1953, you might get that impression as well.

The reality, as it often is, is more nuanced. The individual operating the X-ray crystallography was a doctorate in the Watson and Crick lab. They had built a structural model on their own, and took the seminal photographs of the DNA structure we understand today. Without them, Watson and Crick might have never stumbled upon their discovery.

The individual?

Her name was Rosalind Franklin, and the only mention of her “unpublished” contributions were in a footnote at the back of the original 1953 paper, a common practice in which women’s independent ideas were regularly recognized as a lead up to her boss’s overall one. She was excluded from the Nobel Prize that Watson and Crick received for the discovery of DNA.

Her story is an ubiquitous one. From Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal cells laid the foundation for cancer research, to Esther Lederberg, who made critical discoveries in genetics but whose husband won the Nobel Prize, women historically have not been named at the table of science.

The inadvertent policy of exclusion is an impact that’s still being felt today. Researchers at the University of Melbourne were interested in the “gender gap” in science, the phenomenon of uneven number of men and women researchers across scientific disciplines that is often attributed to the historic exclusion of women. They wanted to estimate its size, and how long it would take to close. They compiled a database of almost 10 million academic papers published over the last 15 years, and looked at rates of publication of women and men researchers.

They found that of the 115 scientific disciplines they covered, 8 held that women outnumbered men (e.g. nursing, midwifery) while 23 publish at the same rate (e.g. public health, nutrition) (Holman 2018). In the remaining 87 disciplines, men far outnumber women. At the current pace, it will take only a decade to close some fields (microbiology, anthropology, etc.) but far greater in others. In physics, it will take 258 years to close the gender gap!

The data continues. Studies show that women in science, compared to men of equal skill and education, receive less mentoring (Hanna-Rose 2012), are less likely to be trained in elite laboratories (Venkatraman 2014), are widely seen as less competent, are less likely to publish, and when they are published, their work is less likely to be cited (Larivière 2013). For all of this, women are broadly paid less for equal work (Shen 2013). In addition, they face persistent stereotypes about their work ethic, aptitude, and scientific capacity.

What do we do with all of this information?

Science is a lens in which we view the world. To some, it’s like a religion. It holds truths about the world that we cannot otherwise understand, and it holds a process of explaining the inexplicable. It’s a field that prides itself on innovation and discovery. And yet, despite its best intentions, it is not immune to the follies of the human condition. Neither can it remain stagnant in the face of societal change.

Women comprise half of our world. Although their names are not always written down in history books and in scientific journals, they’ve been here and they matter. It may be too late to fully change the past, but it is certainly never too late to fix the present. From providing girls with women mentors in STEM to allocating equal leave for new parents, there are tangible ways to better represent women in science. This month’s NatPhil publication is one way that we are doing our part by educating the public on the importance of gender equity in scientific fields.


Holman, L., Stuart-Fox, D., & Hauser, C. E. (2018). The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? PLOS Biology,16(4).


Venkatraman, V. (2014). Elite Male Faculty Employ Fewer Women. Science. doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1400167

Shen, H. (2013). Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature,495(7439), 22-24. doi:10.1038/495022a

Hanna-Rose, W., & Vrablik, T. (2012). Faculty of 1000 evaluation for Science facultys subtle gender biases favor male students. F1000 - Post-publication Peer Review of the Biomedical Literature. doi:10.3410/f.717956885.793462071

Larivière, V., Ni, C., Gingras, Y., Cronin, B., & Sugimoto, C. R. (2013). Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science. Nature,504(7479), 211-213. doi:10.1038/504211a

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