Increasing the Visibility of Women Scientists: 3 Modest Proposals

While roaming the streets of Berlin, Germany over the course of the last week, I surveyed 50 people representing all ages, colors, races, and sexual orientations and asked them which 5 scientists first came to mind. Seventeen could not think of any scientist’s name, 15 responded incompletely with less than 5 scientists, and only 18 could complete the task at hand. It was no surprise that Albert Einstein would rank number one, but it was not expected that the sum of all women scientists named on the streets of Berlin would tie with the (un)popularity of one, Svante Arrhenius. Out of the 41 scientists mentioned, only two women’s names came up: Elizabeth Blackwell and Marie Curie. It was discouraging, to say the least, to witness the entirety of women’s contributions to science acknowledged by only 4% of participants in such a cosmopolitan city.

scientsits graph

Note: Numbers are rounded up, so total exceeds 100

The results of this study reveal that a general knowledge of science, scientists, and their contributions is severely lacking. It’s quite unbelievable that 34% of the approached individuals were not able to mention even one scientist. The other, perhaps more stunning, statistic is surely that less than 5% of the entire sample population mentioned a female scientist. Given the challenges facing the environment, our current economy, and the ever-developing world of technology, the world needs every potential scientist it can get, but gender has often become a barrier (see resources at the end of this post). Although we as a people have become nearly inseparable from our electronic devices, namely, the computers on which you’re reading this post, we do not recognize the women who contributed to today’s technology, such as the first computer programmer, Augusta Ada King (aka Ada Lovelace); Ruchi Sanghvi, the first female engineer at the world’s most – known social networking site, Facebook; and Google’s first female engineer, Marissa Mayer, who is now the CEO and president of Yahoo!

How is it that modern – day media supports and advertises the accomplishments of prominent male scientists, but women are nowhere to be found? Not surprisingly, every individual I spoke to who could name a scientist knew of Albert Einstein, what he looked like, and his scientific contributions. Although female contributions to the scientific community have indeed been tremendous, women have failed to reach the height of scientific celebrity. Educating the world’s population about the contributions of female scientists may appear to be unachievable for us as individuals, but there are a few simple yet effective ideas with which we can start correcting this problem. In order to begin solving the problem of women’s invisibility in science, I propose three suggestions, ranging from local to national, which we can all put into practice.

First, let’s take advantage of what our student chapters do best: chemistry demonstrations.  No one does chemistry demos like ACS student chapters, and we should play to that strength. So here’s my proposal: Add one demonstration to your repertoire that you can use to highlight the work of a woman scientist. Need an idea? Below you will find a link to a demonstration based on the work of Maud Menten.

Next, we need to make information on women scientists readily available. While you could undertake awareness campaigns, a tool already exists that everyone uses to discover more about the world: Wikipedia. This is why the Royal Society recently sponsored a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to bring many notable science heroines to light. This is an easy activity that a chapter can do with the help of a few volunteers and some time in the library.

Finally, and most ambitiously, we should push for the creation of a National Woman Scientist Month, in the model of African American History Month, perhaps as a supplement to Ada Lovelace Day.  As Black History Month has demonstrated, a designated period of time to honor and learn about individuals who would otherwise be neglected in significant discussions has not only improved awareness, but also tolerance. We could publicize this event through television channels, newspapers, and websites, as well as encourage our schools, after-school programs, colleges, and universities to participate in this movement and help educate our society about a world of science that includes women. We also need to contact our local politicians to encourage them to support this initiative.

As I saw on the streets of Berlin, the public is critically unaware of the contributions of women in science, but thankfully it doesn’t have to be that way. As ACS student members, we are in a great place to undo the mistakes of our past, on a grand scale or a simple one.

Some articles and resources:

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