Honouring forgotten women scientists, mathematicians, programmers and palaeontologists

The Australian government has launched a review into diversity in the science and technology sector. Among other things, the review will examine how to support women and girls in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Research shows negative stereotyping and unconscious bias impacts girls’ participation in STEM at school. It also points to the benefit of role models and fostering positive attitudes towards STEM subjects.

This article highlights the importance of countering ‘The Matilda Effect’ of women’s work overlooked for recognition and awards.

We hope this article allows you to create conversations about women in STEM, helping to bust stereotypes, expose students to a range of STEM careers and provide STEM role models that girls can relate and aspire to.

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Mathematician Dr Louise Olsen-Kettle gathered together the stories of forgotten women scientists / Credit: supplied

In the case of German astronomer Maria Kirch (1670 – 1720), her husband was largely to blame. Kirch discovered a comet in 1702 – the first woman to do so – but when her spouse wrote to King Leopold I to describe the discovery he “omitted” to mention his wife.

Perhaps Gottfried Kirch had a guilty conscience.  Just before his death he revealed his wife was the one who had made the discovery.

Meanwhile when French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) was refused entry to engineering academy ÉcolePolytechnique, she assumed the identity of a male student, ‘Monsieur LeBlanc.’ Germain went on to solve a theory called Fermat’s Last Theorem for a certain category of prime numbers, work still used in cryptography today.

A plaque to Sophie Germain / Credit: Flickr user Monceau licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1816, Germain won the French Academy of Sciences prize for her mathematical explanation of the vibration of an elastic surface. And when Siméon-Denis Poisson published his work on elasticity he neglected to acknowledge Germain’s assistance.

Mathematician Dr Louise Olsen-Kettle has gathered together the stories of forgotten women like Kirch and Germain, along with 19 others (although she told Cosmos, “there’s a lot more I could put in”).

Olsen-Kettle is the Vice Chancellor’s Women in STEM Fellow in Mathematics at Swinburne University in Melbourne. Her presentation, The Matilda Effect, highlights the overlooked contributions of women scientists, mathematicians, programmers and palaeontologists.

The Matilda Effect is named after suffragist Matilda Gage, who in 1870, was the first American woman to publish a study of American women in science. The term was coined by Margaret Rossiter as a means of describing the systemic and sexist nature of the under-recognition of women scientists through history.

“The Matilda Effect propagates the [science, technology, engineering, and maths] gender gap by reinforcing male stereotypes leading to fewer female role models, and a male dominated culture leads to less recognition of female achievements,” Olsen-Kettle says.

A study published in Nature this year interrogated the teams and individuals behind nearly 40,000 journal articles between 2013 and 2016. The research found women involved in research teams are significantly less likely to be credited with authorship, with the gender gap in attribution spread across most scientific disciplines and almost all career stages.

The problem goes right to the top. Of the 219 Nobel Prizes awarded for physics, only four have gone to women. In chemistry, 3.7% of the prizes awarded have gone to women. Meanwhile only two women have been awarded the Fields Medal for mathematics out of 64.

And other forms of recognition are lacking. For instance, less than 4% of Australian statues recognise women, according to data from advocacy group A Monument of One’s Own. In fact, there are more statues of animals than women.

While Olsen-Kettle lays out the unique story behind each forgotten female scientist, there are common themes. Many women were excluded from full participation in their fields, or had their work claimed by or credited to men.

She adds, often these women suffered for their achievements.

“The thing that really struck me about the stories was most of them didn’t get much money or died poor, very poor. And a lot of them died young, for whatever reason, and there was a lot of marriage breakdown.”

In the case of Esther Lederberg (1922 – 2006), a pioneer of bacterial genetics, she implemented a ground-breaking technique called replica plating. The technique involves replicating microorganism colonies from one petri dish to another, enabling each to be independently tested.

Her first husband and his research team won the 1958 Nobel prize for Medicine for her work.

“You just can’t imagine the conversations they would have in the bed”, Olsen-Kettle says.

Lederberg and her husband later divorced.

Another theme was that the ‘Matildas’ were often doing a lot of the practical work. In the case of Klára Dán von Neumann (1911 – 1963) who did the coding in the 1940s ENIAC computer to make weather predictions, or Isabella Karle’s (1921 – 2017) work developing methods for analysing X-ray diffraction data, without which her husband’s theories wouldn’t have become practically useful.

ENIAC / Credit: Flickr user the Kirbster

Olsen-Kettle says today, “if you are writing the code, and implementing it and running the program, and doing all that practical work, you would be a co-author.”

The stories of women scientists are beginning to be shared and recognised through books, movies, and in some cases in the naming of new elements. The movie, Hidden Figures celebrates the women who worked as ‘human computers’ calculating orbital trajectories for NASA’s early space missions.

Of course, some woman scientists, even those whose contribution may have been overlooked in the past, are slowly gaining recognition.

Nuclear scientist, Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) is immortalised in the periodic table as meitnerium (noting that of the 15 elements named after scientists, only two are for women).

Professor Lise Meitner / Credit: IAEA

Under ‘success stories’, Olsen-Kettle files one of Australia’s best-known engineers, green materials pioneer Veena Sahajwalla, who was recently awarded a 2022 Eureka Prize for her work promoting the understanding of science.

Australian radio astronomer, Ruby Payne-Scott (1912 – 1981) has been recognised by the CSIRO’s Payne-Scott awards supporting researchers who have taken extended parental leave to re-establish and reconnect with their field.

Other local successes include mineral chemist, Isabel Joy Bear (1927 – 2021) who together with Richard Thomas, scientifically described the unique, earthy smell associated with rain, calling it ‘petrichor’. Also, mathematician Nalini Joshi, the first female Professor of mathematics at the University of Sydney.

Olsen-Kettle says increasingly, many children’s books are celebrating these women’s lives. She even drew on one she gave to her daughter, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girlsin putting together her shortlist.

“It’s really good for young women to read that, and also maybe see the challenges they faced, and that they still stayed at it and persevered. Hopefully, our daughters won’t have such a big block ahead of them. But I still think it’s important to see some of the amazing things that have been done,” she says.

Want to know more about women scientists from history?

You can watch Olsen-Kettle’s full presentation here.

Cosmos has also featured some of the extraordinary women on Olsen-Kettle’s list. You can read more about entomologist Maria Merian, fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning, mathematician Emmy Noether, nuclear researcher Chien-Shiung Wu, opthamologist Patricia BathRosalind Franklin and Nettie Stevens.

Aussie STEM Stars:

This series of books written by award-winning children’s authors is a great way to engage students in STEM. An inspiring and unique series for children aged 9-13 years that celebrates Australia’s leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The Aussie STEM Stars series tell the inspirational stories of our (often unsung, even unknown!) STEM heroes quietly making a huge contribution to humans and the planet.

You can watch some of the stars from the books answers questions about their careers and research in out In Class With series here.