Where Are All the Women Scientists?

By: Jacqueline Jung

For decades, historians have delved into historical records to dismantle the stereotype that only men have made significant contributions and advancements to science, technology, engineering and technology. Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America, published in 1982, was a landmark biography that focused on women who contributed to the growth of American science. While these facts have been published, they have not made their way into the classroom or mainstream culture. There have been numerous female astronomers, chemists, biologists, psychologists and researchers who were indispensable in their contributions toward STEM, but are their names known?

To study the perceptions of women’s contributions to STEM, Reeder et al. (2016) conducted an undergraduate study in three western United States universities. Both STEM and non-STEM students were asked to “Please write down as many famous or historically important scientists, inventors or engineers that you can think of, in one minute.” Afterwards, they were given the same question but with one that specified important women scientists, inventors or engineers. For the first question, 95% of the figures listed were male. Even when students were specifically asked to name women with the second question, the 1,147 students named on average less than one woman (M=.86). And while STEM majors were able to name significantly more male figures than non-STEM majors, there was no difference in major when it came to naming female figures. Women historical figures in science were also often described rather than named. For example, instead of writing “Rosalind Franklin,” students wrote “the X-ray lady” or “the girl who helped Watson and Crick.” This description process also occurred for Goodall, Curie, and Earhart, but rarely did this occurrence happen for male figures.

These results show that, regardless of major, educated students are missing knowledge of women’s contributions and advancements in the history of STEM. This isn’t just an undergraduate problem; other studies have shown that the lack of knowledge about women in STEM permeates all levels of education (Rahm & Charbonneau, 1997; Hoh, 2007). Historical women in STEM have been left out of the standard narratives in science, mathematics, engineering, medicine and the social sciences, both in deed and in name.

So how can we change the stereotype that STEM is for white males only? The first step is for educators to educate themselves on women’s contributions to the sciences and discuss with their class. Discussing the contributions and advancements women made to STEM will not only expose students to a more complete depiction of history, but also may help with STEM retention. The lack of role models has been, and continues to be, a barrier for women and minorities as they enter STEM fields, but knowledge and awareness of other female scientists’ lives and processes of discovery can increase empowerment and engagement.

We owe historical women figures in STEM so much, yet the public is ignorant to their names, much less their contributions. There are more than male stories that are ready for telling.

References

Hoh, Y. K. (2007). Outstanding women in mechanical engineering. International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, 35(3), 198–206.

Rahm, J. & Charbonneau, P. (1997). Probing stereotypes through students’ drawings of scientists. American Journal of Physics, 65(8), 774–778.

Reeder, H., Pyke, P. A., Lubamersky, L., Chyung, S. Y., & Schrader, C. B. (2012, 6, 10). Perceptions about women in science and engineering history. Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper presented at American Society for Engineering Education: Proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference, San Antonio, Texas.

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