Are women discriminated against in science?

As part of British Science Week we have been researching different aspects of the subject every day. This article will explore the injustice and discrimination towards woman and their work for science that has not been credited. 

Have you ever looked back at all the major scientific breakthroughs that changed our world and who made these discoveries? The structure of DNA, the development of the atom bomb and gender linked with chromosomes are all examples of women’s findings, but did they get the credit for their work? No. 

Over many centuries female scientists have worked as only volunteers in the laboratory and have had their discoveries credited to male colleagues. Usually, they fought difficult battles to achieve what they did, only to have it written in somebody else’s name. Many women scientists now believe that bias against females is less obvious but has unfortunately not completely disappeared.

One of the most well-known examples of this was the contributions to the discovery of DNA’s structure by Rosalind Franklin. Similar too many other women scientists Franklin, never got the recognition she deserved. Born in London, 1920, Franklin used x-ray imaging to take pictures of DNA – which changed the world of science forever. 

After studying in Paris she returned to England in 1951 as a researcher in John Randall’s laboratory at Kings Collage, London, and she met Morris Wilkens who was currently pioneering his own research group studying the structure of DNA. Franklin and Wilkins both worked on separate DNA projects however, Wilkens mistook Franklin’s role and thought she was an assistant.

Meanwhile, James Watson and Francis Crick were also trying to determine to structure of DNA. They liaised with Wilkins who (without Franklin’s consent) showed them her image of DNA. This photo (labelled Photo 51) enabled Watson, Crick and Wilkins to determine the correct structure of DNA, which they published in the journal Nature. Therefore, nobody credited Franklin for her work.

Franklin’s image of a molecule of DNA was the key to deciphering its structure. However, as Franklin died four years before the Noble Peace Prize was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins and Noble Peace Prizes are not awarded posthumously, we will never know whether Franklin would have received a share in the prize for her work. 

Other examples of female discoveries in male name are, Nettie Stevens, who discovered determining an organism’s gender by its chromosomes and she had her work credited to Tomas Hunt Morgan. Additionally, Chien-Shiung Wu participated in the development of the atom bomb, only for Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang to take the credit for her work in upturning the law of parity. 

In conclusion, we see that these great women haven’t been recognised of their work and should have been. Consequently we should aim to end discrimination in the world of science.

Are women more involved in Science now?

Many people would now agree that women have a lot more rights than previously. However, realistically the statistics are still not as equal as they should be. According to the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook 2014, 47% of the total US workforce is female – however the statistics are much lower in science and engineering occupations. For example:

  • 39% of chemists are women
  • 27.9% of environmental and geoscientists are women
  • 15.6% of chemical engineers are women
  • 12.1% of civil engineers are women
  • 8.3% of electricians are women
  • 17.2% of industrial engineers are women
  • 7.2% of mechanical engineers are women 

According to the Department for Education the statistics in schools also depict a similar view with studies showing that boys are more likely to study maths and science A-levels, apart from biology which is more popular with girls. There is a significant gender gap in physics, with about 19.2% of boys studying it compared to only 3.6% of girls. In a recent interview Education minister Nick Gibb said: “Since 2010, the number of A-level entries by girls in maths, physics, chemistry and biology has risen by at least 12%. But we need to go further.” This shows that the gender gap of science in schools is decreasing and there is more hope for women scientists in the future.

Science week

British Science Week is a celebration of all scientific subjects, which lasts for 10 days, that features engaging and entertaining events across the UK. Anyone can organise an activity, but the British Science Association helps them with free resources and support. 

Here at Tonbridge Grammar School, we actively participate in the British Science Week event. We do this by integrating fun and exciting activities into our science lessons. This includes things such as, making ice-cream, slime and completing forensic investigations. This is because at Tonbridge Grammar School, we aim to encourage girls to enjoy and participate in science. A poll that we carried out found that 66.6% of pupils enjoy science lesson at school (0% don’t enjoy it, but 33.3% sort of enjoy it) and 88.8% enjoy science week. Finally, more than half of pupils here are considering a job in science. 

From this we can see how much our school encourages the girls to participate in all subjects and we have a large amount of pupils who love to learn about science and want to continue it in their careers. Science should always be an option for girls and they shouldn’t feel like it isn’t for them and they will seem more masculine or ‘nerdy’. We can see that this is changing and that maybe in some time it will seem an ordinary job for any women. 

Our pie charts showing results from our survey with people at our school.