Field of Science

Can gender gaps impede scientific progress?

My commentary on Marie Curie and the paucity of women chemistry Nobel laureates ends wondering

"...if what underlies the inability to fully acknowledge the social biases that obscure and downplay women’s scientific achievements, and the ways in which our spaces silently speak to us about who belongs and who doesn’t, who appears capable and who does not, is the assumption that if a Marie doesn’t make a critical breakthrough, of course, a Pierre somewhere will. Will chemistry make all the critical leaps it could, without the contribution of half of its finest minds?"

Last week, the president of Bryn Mawr College (where I teach) had an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed about closing the gap for women in science and engineering. She, too, worries that progress in science and technology is impeded by lack of participation by women (and I would add the lack of recognition for women's work in these fields) President McAuliffe writes "As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap."

Some readers of McAuliffe's essay had a hard time imagining that scientific progress could be impeded when women are underrepresented or sidelined in science and said so in the comments. Sam Kean's delightful Disappearing Spoon includes a clear counterexample: In 1934, Ida Noddak suggested the possibility of atomic fission. Her work was dismissed as "ill conceived and unfounded" by Emilio Segre (who won the Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of the anti-proton); Irene Joliet-Curie similarly thought it possible; Lise Meitner definitely discovered fission in 1939 (and Otto Hahn won the Nobel for the discovery).

Another example on the same theme: Lise Meitner also discovered the Auger effect, in 1922, a year before it was discovered by Pierre Auger (for whom it is named).

I realize these are historical examples, but they do prove the point. A blanket disregard (for whatever reason, be it gender, country of origin, venue for publication) for the contributions of a subset of scientists can impede the progress of science. As Matt

Sex in the citadel of science

"The problem was to give birth to a boy
and not a girl," said the fathers of the atom bomb.
Marie Curie did not give birth to any joy.
Tenderly she leans toward jars of glowing radium,
as she had earlier at the bed
of her sleeping daughter Irene. (And then she bore Eve!)
Four years clothed in bitter smoke, in a shed,
stirring a mass in ebullition, nothing secretive,

an iron cauldron, iron rod nearly as big as herself,
a shed no one wanted, not fit for cadavers.
Science is the primordial interest of my life,
nor do I know whether I could live
without the laboratory. Her problem—to give breath,
to let there be light, out of slag, abandoned earth.

— from "Her Crucible: A Poem of Marie Curie" by Margaret Almon

In the latest issue of Nature Chemistry, I have a commentary speculating on why women, despite their increasing presence in the field, win the Nobel in chemistry less frequently than 100 years ago. The essay is framed around Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel prize in chemistry. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Prof. Curie's Nobel (her second).

It's not about mathematical ability (sorry Larry Summers, there's hard data that punctures your theory) or lack of inherent interest. Instead, I wonder if it has to do with the built environment: the size, color, shape of the laboratory and its equipment:
Built space is not neutral, as Winston Churchill noted, “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” As much as scientists use labs to create science, labs themselves create scientists. (Read the rest here....)