Eclipsed genius: Despite modest progress, sexism and racism persist in science

History is riddled with men taking credit for women's contributions to science. It's not a problem of the past

Published August 12, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Portraits of Ada Lovelace, Eunice Foote, Nettie Stevens, Alice Augusta Ball and Lise Meitner. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/WikiCommons/The Tuttle Company)
Portraits of Ada Lovelace, Eunice Foote, Nettie Stevens, Alice Augusta Ball and Lise Meitner. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/WikiCommons/The Tuttle Company)

When Margaret Rossiter, Ph.D. began digging around for evidence of women's contributions to science in the 1970s, she hit a wall pretty quickly. 

"People said there weren't any women scientists," Rossiter, a professor emerita at Cornell University, told Salon in a phone interview. "[They said] you'll never find anything and you're wasting your time."

But time would prove them wrong. Rossiter persisted and ended up uncovering a paper trail of letters and documents that illuminated the lives of hundreds of women forgotten in science history. Some worked as volunteers in laboratories and research settings, invisible in the public eye, with their contributions overshadowed by those of their male colleagues. Others were recognized as professors or scientists, but parallel research in other corners of the globe conducted by men took home the glory instead. Rossiter named the phenomenon in which women's work in science is repressed or denied the "Matilda Effect," and it persists today.

The examples of how women's contributions to science are largely overlooked are myriad. There's Eunice Foote, a scientist studying the greenhouse gas effect in 1856, three years before John Tyndall, the "father of climate science," was credited with discovering it. And there's Ada Lovelace, who is said to have programmed the first computer in 1843, but wasn't recognized for her work until the late 20th century.

Take Nettie Stevens, an American geneticist that discovered sex chromosomes while studying mealworms in 1905. Although this discovery has historically been attributed to E.B. Wilson, their research was published around the same time. The two also frequently exchanged correspondence.

Although huge steps have been made toward equity today, women in science still make less money than male scientists and are underrepresented in STEM.

As historian Stephen G. Brush writes in "The History of Science Society": "Wilson probably did not arrive at his conclusion on sex determination until after he had seen Stevens' results. ... Because of Wilson's more substantial contributions in other areas, he tends to be given most of the credit for this discovery."

About three decades later in 1938, Lise Meitner — along with her colleague, Otto Hahn, and her nephew, Otto Frisch — discovered nuclear fission, which would later be used by J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Another woman physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu was part of the team that developed the atom bomb but was excluded from the Nobel Prize award her male colleagues received.) After Meitner, who was Jewish, fled Germany during World War II, Hahn published the work in her absence and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944.

"Regardless of how you cut it, women get less credit than men."

Although huge steps have been made toward equity today, women in science still make less money than male scientists and are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) A 2022 study published in Nature also found women still aren't getting the credit they deserve and are "significantly less likely" to receive authorship when working on a scientific study. 

"Regardless of how you cut it, women get less credit than men," said study author Julia Lane, Ph.D., a professor at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "We followed up with a survey … and what struck us was the strength of the response of the survey. It was completely consistent and people were writing in how passionately they felt about being excluded."

That study didn't break down whether credit was given where credit was due for women of color or gender nonconforming people. Yet both groups face additional barriers to entering science and getting published. In addition to wage gaps and underrepresentation, a person's zip code has been shown to influence the quality of their education, while systemic racism in schools dissuades some aspiring scientists from pursuing higher education in the first place.

In one qualitative study that surveyed Black women scientists about their experiences in STEM, one respondent said: "I have not even thought of my gender because my color has been so significant."

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Nevertheless, women of color have been working to solve science's greatest mysteries for more than a century. In 1915, Alice Ball, a Black Hawaiian chemist, discovered the world's leading leprosy treatment before antibiotics, which was nicknamed the "Ball Method."

Ball died in her 20s before publishing her work, but after her death, two colleagues at the College of Hawaii, Arthur Dean and Richard Wrenshall, published her research in a couple of papers and even renamed her method the "Dean Method." In the 1970s, other researchers discovered Ball's work in archives, but she wouldn't be fully recognized until 2022 when the Hawaiian governor declared Feb. 28 Alice Augusta Ball Day.

Racheida Lewis, Ph.D., an assistant engineering professor at the University of Georgia, told Salon in a phone interview that she was one of four women and one of four Black people in her graduating class. Academia can sometimes practice gatekeeping, she said, particularly against first-generation scholars.

"Most of my teachers were older white men that had this idea of, 'If you don't understand what I say in class, maybe this isn't for you,'" Lewis said. "That was really disheartening. To think, at the beginning of the semester, you come in wanting to learn everything you can and you get to a point where you just need to survive."

Although more and more women and women of color are getting published, they are still not cited as frequently as male researchers — something that signifies colleagues value the work and leads to recognition in the scientific community, Lewis added.

"You may have all these publications," she said. "But if no one is reading it …  someone might make a similar discovery or conclusion and try to take credit for it, not recognizing the work that was already done by someone else."

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Today, women represent 27% of professions in STEM, which is up from 8% in 1970. Efforts are being made to level the playing field in academia and improve access for women and women of color in science. Lewis said intentional collaboration between experienced and new researchers, especially first-generation scholars, is one way to bridge the gap.

After all, innovation and creativity are both improved by diversity. And more recognition and representation will ensure this generation of women scientists is not forgotten.

"When we talk about the next generation and being supportive of them, what does that actually mean?" Lewis said. "It's important to think about how we can make more scientists and great contributors in our field and be able to advance our society."

By Elizabeth Hlavinka

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Bias Deep Dive Gender Racism Science History Sexism Stem Women In Science