Once, most famous scientists were men. But that’s changing.

Women still are underrepresented in STEM fields. But some female scientists are now gaining recognition—and due credit—for their breakthroughs.

By Angela Saini
Published 28 Oct 2019, 12:23 GMT
Photograph by Lauren Brevner
This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.

“I have something to tell you.”

I was ready to head home after giving a lecture about Inferior—my book documenting the history of sexism in science and its repercussions today—when a soft-spoken woman approached me. She told me she was studying for a Ph.D. in computer science at a British university and was the only woman in her group. Her supervisor wouldn’t stop making sexist jokes. He never picked her for workshops or conferences.

“Every interaction is awkward for me. I feel intimidated,” she said. “Most of the time I just find myself counting every minute.” Her plan was to see out the final years of her Ph.D., leave the university, and never look back.

I’ve had hundreds of these fleeting encounters with women scientists and engineers, all over the world, in the two years since publication of the book—which seems to reflect back at women the kinds of sexism that they experience in their own lives. When these women approach me at events to quietly share their stories, I’ve found what they want above all is empathy, to be told they aren’t imagining their misery. Their accounts of discrimination, marginalisation, harassment, and abuse reinforce that, though progress has been made, there’s a long way to go.

The scientific establishment has long had a woeful record when it comes to women.

Charles Darwin, no less, described women as the intellectual inferiors of men. Toward the end of the European Enlightenment, in the late 1700s, it was assumed that women had no place in academia. Many universities refused even to grant degrees to women until the 20th century; my alma mater, Oxford University, waited until 1920. It took until 1945 for the Royal Society of London—the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence—to admit its first women fellows. (Consequently, as historian Londa Schiebinger notes, “For nearly three hundred years, the only permanent female presence at the Royal Society was a skeleton preserved in the society’s anatomical collection.”)

It has been routine throughout the sciences for men to take credit for research done by women working alongside them, not just colleagues but sometimes also wives and sisters. This is how, as recently as 1974, pioneering astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell lost out on a Nobel Prize for her work on the discovery of pulsars, which was given instead to her supervisor, Antony Hewish. In a gesture of extraordinary generosity last year, when awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, Bell Burnell donated the entire £2.3 million to studentships for women and other groups underrepresented in physics.

Even where the doors to the sciences have been pried open, life for women inside is often not easy. Sexism and misogyny linger in both overt and subtle ways. For example: A recent analysis of authorship of nearly 7,000 study reports in peer-reviewed science journals found that when the co-author overseeing the study was a woman, about 63 percent of co-authors were female, on average; when the overseeing co-author was a man, about 18 percent of co-authors were female.

Unsurprisingly, women are exasperated at this state of affairs and pushing for change. Last year physicist Jess Wade at Imperial College London and research scientist Claire Murray led a crowdfunding campaign to put a copy of Inferior into every U.K. state school. They hit their target within two weeks; similar campaigns have since been launched in New York City, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As Bell Burnell did, women are donating their own money to change a system that doesn’t seem to want to change of its own accord.

Why does the burden fall so heavily on women in the sciences to improve the field’s dismal record on women? As the stories I have heard demonstrate, at least part of the problem lies with certain men and the institutions that enable sexism. Girls and young women are choosing science and technology courses in greater numbers, we know, but they fall away sharply as they move up the ladder. Pregnancy and parenting play some part, but not all. A Cardiff University survey this year revealed that even after accounting for family responsibilities, male academics in the U.K. were still reaching senior levels at higher rates than women.

A male physicist I know, who is a vocal champion for women’s rights, recently found a typed note slipped into his pigeonhole at work. The writer called him a fool for assuming that women have the same “mental equipment” as men, and claimed, “Women do not think in abstract terms as men can.” Such spurious assertions certainly make women feel unwelcome in the sciences. And yet when women—as well as minorities—depart these fields, we reduce it to a mechanistic phrase: the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon.

Everyday sexism is one thing.

The other, even darker, cloud above the sciences and academia is sexual harassment. The global phenomenon of #MeToo has brought survivors of sexual assault to our attention and abuse and bullying to the fore. And there is reason to believe that these experiences are more widespread than is yet clear. Data to back up women’s anecdotal experiences is growing. When Kathryn Clancy at the University of Illinois and colleagues surveyed more than 660 scientists about their academic fieldwork experiences, 84 percent of female junior scientists reported harassment and 86 percent reported assault. That survey was among the first to lay bare just how deep the problem may be.

Physicist Emma Chapman, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow based at Imperial College London, was so affected by her experience of harassment at the hands of a senior colleague when she was at University College London that she became an outspoken champion for women in the same position.

“I found myself dropped into a very uncomfortable culture,” she says, one in which informality crossed the line into unwanted hugs and intrusions into personal life.

An investigation resulted in a two-year restraining order against the man. Chapman was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, while her harasser remained in his job. “Dismissal is vanishingly rare,” she tells me. Yet she considers herself lucky, because in almost all such cases she has seen, women’s careers end when they dare to speak out.

Chapman estimates that roughly a hundred women have approached her since she became involved with the 1752 Group, a small U.K. organisation working to end sexual misconduct in academia, named after the £1,752 from university event funds that launched the group in 2015. Her greatest battle is persuading universities to stand behind victims rather than cover up for perpetrators. “We talk about a leaky pipeline all the time,” she says. “It’s absolutely not. Women are being shoved out the back door quietly.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Australian microbiologist Melanie Thomson, herself a past victim of sexual harassment. In 2016 Thomson says she witnessed astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, then based at Arizona State University, grope a woman at a conference. “She elbowed him in the guts,” she recalled. Thomson filed an official complaint, and in 2018 Krauss’s university confirmed that he had violated their sexual harassment policy.

The problem is not limited to a few such men, Thomson says. “It’s huge. In science it’s particularly insidious.”

Science journalist Michael Balter, who covers sexual harassment cases and has adopted an advocacy role, says the behaviours persist in part because “science is very hierarchical. You’ve got the head of the lab or the head of the institute and they really have an enormous amount of power,” he says. “A democratisation of science and a lessening of the power differentials would go a long way to solving a lot of evils.”

Balter says investigating harassment allegations is legally fraught, making many cases of misconduct hard to document. BuzzFeed News reporter Azeen Ghorayshi experienced that in 2015, when she published a report on sexual harassment accusations against prominent astronomer Geoff Marcy, then at the University of California, Berkeley. Marcy was so notorious that women there discouraged other women from working under him. But it’s so hard for women to get misconduct claims addressed that when he finally was investigated and sanctioned, Marcy was found to have violated sexual harassment policies on campus for almost a decade.

Ghorayshi tells me that since writing about Marcy, she has been approached by dozens more women—evidence of “how prevalent this is at major institutions in the United States and elsewhere.” In many of the cases she has reported on, Ghorayshi says, the women involved have left the field: “It’s about vulnerability, and who is vulnerable and who is untouchable.”

The bottom line, says physicist Chapman, is that universities need to think more carefully about their commitment to equality. “We can talk all day long about family-friendly policies, but we are in total denial about the fact that there is an actively hostile culture,” she tells me. “I think it is endemic.”

In the sciences today, there remains this implicit assumption that the careers of young women are disposable while those of older men must be protected at all costs, even if that means covering up unacceptable behaviour and putting more people in harm’s way. As long as we tolerate this situation, there’s a steep price to pay.

The damage is not only to individuals, which is terrible enough. The damage is also to science.

Angela Saini is an award-winning British science journalist and author. Her latest book, published this year, is Superior: The Return of Race Science. She is the author of two other books, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (2017) and Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World (2011).
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