International Women’s Day and STEM

Written by Science

In 2014, a European-wide study found that a quarter of people were unable to name a female scientist, living or dead. Whilst the gender disparity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) remains wide, with women making up just 24% of all people employed in STEM industries, there are many incredible female scientists who work just as hard as their male counterparts, continuing to inspire with their ground-breaking work.

The male-orientated perception of STEM fields is a strongly ingrained societal stereotype, meaning that many of us can easily name male scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Timothy Berners-Lee and Brian Cox, yet struggle to name female scientists. How many of us can say we have heard of Cori Bargmann, US neuroscientist who was named R & D magazine’s 2017 scientist of the year? Bargmann has been studying the behaviour of Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a 1-mm long type of worm, since her postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Whilst this may not sound like exciting or ground-breaking science, Bargmann’s work has laid important groundwork in the understanding of olfaction, and the relationship between genetics and sense of smell. An obviously revolutionary scientist, Bargmann is now the President of the Chang Zuckerberg Initiative, whose primary goal is to ‘cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.’ To many, this would seem an impossible task, but not to Bargmann. She has taken the challenge in her stride, saying ‘I can see incredible advances that have been made in medicine that come from science…there’s no reason to think we could not make equally great or much more progress in the next 80 years.’ Bargmann has already made great progress via her role in the Brain Research Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, a programme committed to establishing links between brain function and behaviour. The research could eventually help us to understand conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Clearly, Bargmann is an innovative scientist, whose work should not be overlooked because of her gender.

Franklin’s images were shared to Watson and Crick without her permission

It is not just in the twenty-first century that female scientists have come into their own, however. One of history’s most consistently overlooked yet most important scientists is Rosalind Franklin, who by the time of her death aged just 37 had co-discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, as well as making contributions to the understanding of RNA, coal and graphite. When learning about DNA way back in GCSE biology, the names I remember being credited with the discovery were James Watson and Francis Crick. Franklin’s name was not mentioned, yet without her images of DNA, obtained using X-Ray crystallography, Watson and Crick would have been unable to create their famous double-helix DNA model. Franklin’s images were shared to Watson and Crick without her permission, and when Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Franklin was overlooked because the prize is not awarded posthumously. All of this has caused her to become one of science’s forgotten heroes, yet her achievements should be celebrated, not overlooked.

STEM fields also cover computer science, an area perhaps most typically dubbed as a ‘masculine industry’, with girls making up just 9.8% of the cohort who studied computer science A-Level in 2017. However, there are still inspirational women in this field. Dr Sue Black, who left school at 16 and was living in a women’s refuge aged 25, has since gained a PhD in software engineering. She is founding chair of BCSWomen, an initiative that mentors women who wish to pursue a career in IT. Black is also an avid campaigner, successfully lobbying to secure funding for Bletchley Park, a site instrumental in World War Two for decoding enemy messages. Her efforts have been vital in restoring this important historical site.

Women are clearly fundamental in STEM industries, and a celebration of these pioneering women is needed. With International Women’s Day on 8th March, what better time to realise that women are just as qualified to work in STEM, and that we should encourage those who wish to pursue studies in these fields?

Last modified: 8th March 2018

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