Women in Science, Part 1—What Have We Learned From the Past?

Women in Science, Part 1—What Have We Learned From the Past?

Wait, did we miss that turn?

What do the numerical approximation for cube roots, quantitative analysis of surface films, and the identification of the first human coronavirus have in common? They were all discoveries pioneered by women in science. [1] Ever been stuck in traffic and had your GPS map reroute you to get home more quickly? Or have you been happy that you don’t have to plug your computer into a phone line to get dial-up internet? You can thank Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor, for those conveniences. This powerhouse woman inventor was only known for her beauty and acting career while she was alive, but her inventions led to the development of modern GPS and Wi-Fi technology. [2] Nearly everyone has heard of Marie Curie and her Nobel prizes, but there are countless other women who have contributed to our collective knowledge of the world around us. In many cases, these women had to fight to get into the annals of history and even to be allowed to study at universities up until very recently.

The scientific discovery of global warming, a topic that is a driving force in Future Fields, was also pioneered by a woman. Eunice Foote was an American scientist who discovered the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, her work was largely ignored, and the discovery was attributed to John Tyndall, who only noted it three years after Foote’s paper was published. [3] Her paper was also presented by a male peer at conferences as Foote was not allowed to attend due to being a woman. [4] Indeed, as women make up slightly more than half of the population, it would seem that they have made their mark on the scientific world many times over. So why don’t we know more about them?

Marie Curie Hedy Lamarr Eunice Foote Future Fields

Left: Marie Curie (Source: Britannica). Top right: Hedy Lamarr (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Bottom right: Eunice Foote (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Learning what you didn’t know you didn’t know

Why are the women of history not heralded in the scientific community for their discoveries at the same rate, or even near to, their male counterparts? [5][6] The problem is twofold: the type of education women received and the credit of their discoveries being attributed to male counterparts. Women have been able to be educated in many cultures for several millennia—albeit historically, only those born into the upper classes were able to receive an education. While historical women were allowed to study grammar, languages, and philosophy, they were often discouraged from studying science, math, and engineering and were often not granted credentials for their education. This becomes evident when looking into western credentials as the first woman to be credited with a Ph.D. in science was Laura Bassi in 1732, whereas the first woman with a law degree was Bettisia Gozzadini in 1237. [7] Despite being barred from receiving formal credentials and discouraged from pursuing an education in ‘hard’ topics like math and science, women still experimented and invented, only to discover the credit for their work went to their male counterparts. [8]

The attribution of female work to male colleagues is such a common phenomenon that it has its own name: The Matilda Effect. [9] There are more examples of this effect than can be summarized in one article, but two recent ones in the fields of genetics and DNA stand out for us. In the early 1900s, both Nettie Stevens and Rosalind Franklin made groundbreaking discoveries in these sciences, yet neither was credited until recently. Nettie Stevens did novel work in genetics and inheritance; building on Mendel’s theories she used mealworms to elucidate the role of sex chromosomes and she contributed greatly to our understanding of genetic inheritance at the chromosomal level. Unfortunately, much of her work has been erroneously credited to E.B. Wilson. [10] Rosalind Franklin is also now recognized as a crucial contributor to the discovery of DNA structure, something Francis Crick and James Watson received a Nobel prize for in 1962, but she did not get recognition at that time. [11] A brilliant chemist, Rosalind took the first ever picture of DNA and even published her work in the same journal as Watson and Crick, though it was several pages behind their paper and readers thought her work was just supporting theirs. [12] Having passed away in 1958, she along with many of these women would never know how we have come to recognize their contributions today.

Nettie Stevens Rosalind Franklin Future Fields

Left: Nettie Stevens (Source: By the Incubator, courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington). Right: Rosalind Franklin (Source: Ann Ronan Picture Library—World History Archive/age fotostock).

Changing the monologue

In 2022, things are looking up for women in sciences: 44% of students entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs are women. [13] This is critical as the need for workers in STEM is going to rise in the future; the US alone will need to fill over 3 million STEM jobs by 2025. [14] Since 1970, there has been an overall increase in women in STEM occupations, and in 2019, women made up nearly half of those in all math positions (47%) and just under half in life and physical science (45%) occupations in the US. [15] By adding more women into STEM careers, we can help to narrow the gender pay gap, enhance women’s economic freedoms and security, increase workforce diversity, and ensure that the workforce is full of the most talented and best-suited candidates for the job. [16]

Recognizing these benefits, countries and companies worldwide are implementing programs to encourage women to enter the sciences and reduce the biases and barriers that have held them back in the past. [17] Frameworks such as the Four for Women (position, pay, health, and satisfaction) outline how companies can be good employers as well as increase their bottom line, all by promoting equality. [18]

Future Fields is passionate about being a diverse and ethical supplier to the sciences. This means implementing and acting on frameworks to ensure gender diversity in our workplace. With several women scientists and equal representation throughout the organization (50% of our company and board identify as women), we feel that we are on the right track within our company. We recognize that scientists can also be mothers and parents, and we fully embrace this by providing generous maternal and parental leave, creating a child-friendly office space, offering flexible time-off policies, and ensuring team members can fully disconnect after they leave for the night.

Women in Science, Engineering and Research

We also want to help women who are at the beginning of their STEM careers. Without role models to demonstrate what their options can be, women may be defaulting to careers traditionally ‘reserved for women’ and not considering other paths. Connecting generations, our scientists span from early-stage to advanced development of their careers. We believe it’s important to inspire upcoming female scientists, which is why we are excited to participate in the upcoming Women in Science, Engineering and Research (WiSER) mixer. Founded in 2008, WiSER is a sub-community of WISEST at the University of Alberta aimed at serving the needs of graduate students and early-career professionals. WISER supports the retention and advancement of women and under-represented groups in STEM careers by providing opportunities for networking, mentoring, information exchange, and professional development. In line with this, we will also be telling the stories of our own women scientists ahead of this event to show all of the different paths they have taken. Explore the future of representation with us in Part 2 of this article: Women in Science, Part 2—Celebrating Success and Sharing Advice for Future Female Scientists.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_women_in_science 
  2. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/hedy-lamarr
  3. Eunice Foote, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays”, in American Journal of Art and Science, 2nd Series, v. XXII/no. LXVI, November 1856, p. 382-383.
  4. https://ideas.ted.com/history-overlooked-these-women-scientists-but-not-anymore/
  5. https://www.jstor.org/stable/235642
  6. https://localhistories.org/a-history-of-womens-education/
  7. https://www.bologna-experience.eu/the-women-who-have-made-the-history-of-bologna/
  8. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/women-in-stem
  9. The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science, Margaret W. Rossiter, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 325-341 (17 pages)
  10. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2021.0215#d1e314
  11. James Watson, The Double Helix, 1968
  12. Franklin, Rosalind E. and Raymond G. Gosling. "Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate." Nature 171 (1953): 740–1
  13. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2019001/article/00006-eng.htm
  14. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/summer2019/pages/the-u.s.-needs-to-prepare-workers-for-stem-jobs.aspx
  15. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/01/women-making-gains-in-stem-occupations-but-still-underrepresented.html
  16. https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/
  17. https://www.sfu.ca/wwest/WWEST_blog/international-women-s-day--women-in-stem-internationally.html
  18. Four for Women Katherine J. Klein   |   Shoshana Schwartz   |   Sandra Maro Hunt November 1, 2018 A Framework for Evaluating Companies’ Impact on the Women They Employ


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