Once, most famous scientists were men. But that’s changing.

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This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.

“I have something to tell you.”

I was ready to head home after giving a lecture about Inferior—my book documenting the history of sexism in science and its repercussions today—when a soft-spoken woman approached me. She told me she was studying for a Ph.D. in computer science at a British university and was the only woman in her group. Her supervisor wouldn’t stop making sexist jokes. He never picked her for workshops or conferences.

“Every interaction is awkward for me. I feel intimidated,” she said. “Most of the time I just find myself counting every minute.” Her plan was to see out the final years of her Ph.D., leave the university, and never look back.

I’ve had hundreds of these fleeting encounters with women scientists and engineers, all over the world, in the two years since publication of the book—which seems to reflect back at women the kinds of sexism that they experience in their own lives. When these women approach me at events to quietly share their stories, I’ve found what they want above all is empathy, to be told they aren’t imagining their misery. Their accounts of discrimination, marginalization, harassment, and abuse reinforce that, though progress has been made, there’s a long way to go.

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Lise Meitner

1878-1968, The Physics of Fission

Albert Einstein called the Austrian-born physicist “our Marie Curie,” even before her discovery that atomic nuclei can be split in half—a first step in the eventual creation of the atomic bomb. She and her assistant, nephew Otto Frisch, explained and named nuclear fission in 1939. But after prejudice against Jews kept her name from a key experimental paper, her former colleague, Otto Hahn, won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

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Vera Danchakoff

1879-Unknown, Stem Cell Pioneer

Eschewing her parents’ plans for a fine arts education, she was the first woman to become a professor in Russia. In 1916 she described stem cells—those with the potential to develop into many different types of cells in the body. In a 2001 keynote address to the Acute Leukemia Forum, hematologist Marshall Lichtman said: “The rest of the century has been spent filling in the details of [her] experimental insights!”

 

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Janaki Ammal

1897-1984, Sweeter Sugarcane

She rejected a planned marriage to follow her passion for botany and hybridized India’s sugarcane varieties into a plant sweet enough to grow into a 30-million-ton-a-year industry. Although her work was often ignored by male colleagues, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hired her to reorganize the Botanical Survey of India; for that work she was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest honors Indian civilians can receive.

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Chien-Shiung Wu

1912-1997, First Nuclear Weapons

The Chinese-American physicist helped develop the process for breaking down uranium into isotopes during her work on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II. Other experiments she conducted resulted in the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to two male colleagues: Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. Her contribution was not acknowledged.

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Rosalind Franklin

1920-1958, Photo 51: DNA Revealed

The English chemist presented her x-ray diffraction photo showing crystallized DNA fibers at a lecture that James Watson attended. He later claimed that he’d paid scant attention. But her “Photo 51” revealed the double helix that Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins later described. She died of cancer at 37 in 1958; the three men won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, without mention of her work, in 1962.

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Phyllis Bolds

1932-2018, The Strength of Stem

The African-American physicist spent her career studying aircraft vibrations and flight dynamics in a research laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio. Her work was instrumental in mitigating adverse physical effects on military aircraft, personnel, and cargo. All her life she tutored students in STEM—and she inspired several of her female descendants to become scientists.

 

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Wangari Maathai

1940-2011, Greening the Planet

Born in rural Kenya, she was passionate about democracy, human rights, and the environment throughout her life. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental organization focused on improving livelihoods, especially women’s, through community-based tree planting. She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (2004), and in 2009 she was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

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Beatrice Tinsley

1941-1981, Expanding Universe

At 26 she rose in public to challenge famous astronomer Allan Sandage. He said the universe will someday collapse; she said the universe will expand forever—and further research proved her right. When pursuing her science required that she relocate, she divorced, and left her two children with her ex-husband. Before her death from cancer at age 40, she would become known as a leading expert on the evolution and aging of galaxies.

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Jean Purdy

1945-1985, First Test-Tube Baby

The British nurse and embryologist was one of three scientists whose work led to the birth, in 1978, of Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby. Until 2015 the plaque displayed at the hospital where the fertilization took place named only colleagues Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, despite Edwards’s protestations. Edwards won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010, after both Purdy and Steptoe had died.

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The scientific establishment has long had a woeful record when it comes to women.

Charles Darwin, no less, described women as the intellectual inferiors of men. Toward the end of the European Enlightenment, in the late 1700s, it was assumed that women had no place in academia. Many universities refused even to grant degrees to women until the 20th century; my alma mater, Oxford University, waited until 1920. It took until 1945 for the Royal Society of London—the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence—to admit its first women fellows. (Consequently, as historian Londa Schiebinger notes, “For nearly three hundred years, the only permanent female presence at the Royal Society was a skeleton preserved in the society’s anatomical collection.”)

It has been routine throughout the sciences for men to take credit for research done by women working alongside them, not just colleagues but sometimes also wives and sisters. This is how, as recently as 1974, pioneering astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell lost out on a Nobel Prize for her work on the discovery of pulsars, which was given instead to her supervisor, Antony Hewish. In a gesture of extraordinary generosity last year, when awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, Bell Burnell donated the entire three million dollars to studentships for women and other groups underrepresented in physics.

Even where the doors to the sciences have been pried open, life for women inside is often not easy. Sexism and misogyny linger in both overt and subtle ways. For example: A recent analysis of authorship of nearly 7,000 study reports in peer-reviewed science journals found that when the co-author overseeing the study was a woman, about 63 percent of co-authors were female, on average; when the overseeing co-author was a man, about 18 percent of co-authors were female.

Unsurprisingly, women are exasperated at this state of affairs and pushing for change. Last year physicist Jess Wade at Imperial College London and research scientist Claire Murray led a crowdfunding campaign to put a copy of Inferior into every U.K. state school. They hit their target within two weeks; similar campaigns have since been launched in New York City, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As Bell Burnell did, women are donating their own money to change a system that doesn’t seem to want to change of its own accord.

Why does the burden fall so heavily on women in the sciences to improve the field’s dismal record on women? As the stories I have heard demonstrate, at least part of the problem lies with certain men and the institutions that enable sexism. Girls and young women are choosing science and technology courses in greater numbers, we know, but they fall away sharply as they move up the ladder. Pregnancy and parenting play some part, but not all. A Cardiff University survey this year revealed that even after accounting for family responsibilities, male academics in the U.K. were still reaching senior levels at higher rates than women.

A male physicist I know, who is a vocal champion for women’s rights, recently found a typed note slipped into his pigeonhole at work. The writer called him a fool for assuming that women have the same “mental equipment” as men, and claimed, “Women do not think in abstract terms as men can.” Such spurious assertions certainly make women feel unwelcome in the sciences. And yet when women—as well as minorities—depart these fields, we reduce it to a mechanistic phrase: the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon.

Everyday sexism is one thing.

The other, even darker, cloud above the sciences and academia is sexual harassment. The global phenomenon of #MeToo has brought survivors of sexual assault to our attention and abuse and bullying to the fore. And there is reason to believe that these experiences are more widespread than is yet clear. Data to back up women’s anecdotal experiences is growing. When Kathryn Clancyat the University of Illinois and colleagues surveyed more than 660 scientists about their academic fieldwork experiences, 84 percent of female junior scientists reported harassment and 86 percent reported assault. That survey was among the first to lay bare just how deep the problem may be.

Physicist Emma Chapman, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow based at Imperial College London, was so affected by her experience of harassment at the hands of a senior colleague when she was at University College London that she became an outspoken champion for women in the same position.

“I found myself dropped into a very uncomfortable culture,” she says, one in which informality crossed the line into unwanted hugs and intrusions into personal life.

An investigation resulted in a two-year restraining order against the man. Chapman was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, while her harasser remained in his job. “Dismissal is vanishingly rare,” she tells me. Yet she considers herself lucky, because in almost all such cases she has seen, women’s careers end when they dare to speak out.

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Chapman estimates that roughly a hundred women have approached her since she became involved with the 1752 Group, a small U.K. organization working to end sexual misconduct in academia, named after the £1,752 from university event funds that launched the group in 2015. Her greatest battle is persuading universities to stand behind victims rather than cover up for perpetrators. “We talk about a leaky pipeline all the time,” she says. “It’s absolutely not. Women are being shoved out the back door quietly.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Australian microbiologist Melanie Thomson, herself a past victim of sexual harassment. In 2016 Thomson says she witnessed astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, then based at Arizona State University, grope a woman at a conference. “She elbowed him in the guts,” she recalled. Thomson filed an official complaint, and in 2018 Krauss’s university confirmed that he had violated their sexual harassment policy.

The problem is not limited to a few such men, Thomson says. “It’s huge. In science it’s particularly insidious.”

Science journalist Michael Balter, who covers sexual harassment cases and has adopted an advocacy role, says the behaviors persist in part because “science is very hierarchical. You’ve got the head of the lab or the head of the institute and they really have an enormous amount of power,” he says. “A democratization of science and a lessening of the power differentials would go a long way to solving a lot of evils.”

Balter says investigating harassment allegations is legally fraught, making many cases of misconduct hard to document. BuzzFeed News reporter Azeen Ghorayshi experienced that in 2015, when she published a report on sexual harassment accusations against prominent astronomer Geoff Marcy, then at the University of California, Berkeley. Marcy was so notorious that women there discouraged other women from working under him. But it’s so hard for women to get misconduct claims addressed that when he finally was investigated and sanctioned, Marcy was found to have violated sexual harassment policies on campus for almost a decade.

Ghorayshi tells me that since writing about Marcy, she has been approached by dozens more women—evidence of “how prevalent this is at major institutions in the United States and elsewhere.” In many of the cases she has reported on, Ghorayshi says, the women involved have left the field: “It’s about vulnerability, and who is vulnerable and who is untouchable.”

The bottom line, says physicist Chapman, is that universities need to think more carefully about their commitment to equality. “We can talk all day long about family-friendly policies, but we are in total denial about the fact that there is an actively hostile culture,” she tells me. “I think it is endemic.”

In the sciences today, there remains this implicit assumption that the careers of young women are disposable while those of older men must be protected at all costs, even if that means covering up unacceptable behavior and putting more people in harm’s way. As long as we tolerate this situation, there’s a steep price to pay.

The damage is not only to individuals, which is terrible enough. The damage is also to science.

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist and author. Her latest book, published this year, is Superior: The Return of Race Science. She is the author of two other books, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (2017) and Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World (2011).
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