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Perspective: “On the [Dreaded] Term ‘Woman in STEM”

In seventh-grade science class, I was assigned a report on a famous scientist.


After minimal consideration of other options, I chose Jonas Salk, the man who invented the polio vaccine. To me, the decision was simple: viruses and the immune system felt like two warring armies inside of the human body, waging battles worthy of a blockbuster movie. I was planning on devoting the majority of my report to them, not to Salk.


I’m not sure why my teacher pulled me aside specifically among the substantial number of girls in our mandatory science class (maybe she pulled us all aside one by one), but she lightly suggested that I consider researching a female scientist instead. It would be good for me, she insinuated. The only problem was I hated that idea.


Quite simply, I wanted a report with a good story. I had heard female science stories, and they didn’t have the kind of inspirational flair I was looking for.

To be fair, I was at the point in my middle-school career where I desperately wanted to be “one of the boys” and thought feminism was the second f-word, but I think my reaction stemmed from more than the suggestion that learning about a successful woman would be better for me than learning about a successful man. Quite simply, I wanted a report with a good story. I had heard female science stories, and they didn’t have the kind of inspirational flair I was looking for.


If you read enough “great scientist” stories for Western (white) audiences, you’ll find a predictable pattern of tropes. There’s always some display of precociousness during one’s childhood (Einstein), the annus mirabilis where one overturns current scientific conceptions with super-human productivity (Newton), and ultimately a sort of career martyrdom, where the great scientist is silenced by the church or some other institution (Galileo) who fails to accept the obvious truth that spring out of the scientist’s own head. Although other fields may be guilty of the same idolization of “the greats,” in the field of science many of these stories seem to border on hagiography.


The framework above has its own problems, but “women in science” stories took on a distinct flair that my thirteen-year-old self still did not care for. The first two textbook examples of “women in science” that came to mind for my report consideration were Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin. However, as I watched YouTube videos about these women, I could only focus on how their stories ended. Both Curie and Franklin died of radiation exposure from their research. While Galileo was put under house arrest for the rest of his life for bravely defending “the faith” of reason, Curie and Franklin gave their entire bodies to science. When I revisit this material and the way it praises these women’s “dedication” to the pursuit of knowledge, I can’t help but think of Iphigenia, the princess who bravely sacrifices herself so the Greeks can sail to Troy, and I wonder if much has changed about the way our stories praise women for dying.


While this observation may not have impacted other young women, the deification of Curie both as an amazing scientist and an “exemplary woman” made her and Franklin come off as simply too perfect and unapproachable for my report. Unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing a small taste of what is known as “The Madame Curie Complex,” an idea that women have to be as flawless as Marie Curie, in and out of the laboratory, to be successful in science.


“The result of this image, however, [is] a cultural paradox,” said Julie Des Jardins, Ph.D., a cultural historian and Advisor for the National Women’s History Museum. She published a book on The Madame Curie Complex in 2010. “If women pull off the look of being appropriate women in our culture, they are also deemed incompetent scientists, since scientists have come to be defined as disinterested, only interested in science for ‘science’s sake,’ not for altruistic purposes.”


“If women pull off the look of being appropriate women in our culture, they are also deemed incompetent scientists, since scientists have come to be defined as disinterested, only interested in science for ‘science’s sake,’ not for altruistic purposes.

Moving on from Curie and Franklin, I found another brand of “woman in science” story that I called “scientists in wigs.” These were scientists who were solely described as the first woman to do something a man had already done. Their stories were never about science; they were about all the obstacles a woman had to overcome to do science.


“I have commonly found that some of the most successful women scientists become quite annoyed if you focus on their gender rather than their work,” said Georgina Ferry, a freelance science writer, broadcaster, and biographer based in Oxford, United Kingdom. “I think many successful women today are extremely wary of any suggested they might have succeeded because of some initiative to promote women rather than on their own merits.”


Needless to say, after exploring all of my above options, I begged my teacher to let me do my report on Jonas Salk.



An illustrated black-and-white photo of Rosalind Franklin looking through a microscope, set on a beige background.
Wikimedia Commons/The Xylom Illustration

 

If that seventh-grade science class were to play out as a recent study published in the journal Economics of Education Review has described, 30% of the boys and 15% of the girls would choose a STEM major when they enter college. Of those who chose a STEM major when they entered college, 50% of the boys and 43% of the girls would ultimately graduate with a STEM degree. If all goes as planned I’ll graduate this May and join the 9% of female college STEM degree graduates, but even then my fate is not sealed. By the time my classmates and I are thirty, the boys with STEM degrees will be twice as likely as the girls with STEM degrees to be working in a STEM occupation. The gender gap in STEM seems to widen at every stage of life, ultimately adding up so that nearly three-quarters of STEM jobs are filled by men. A notable exception exists where Black women do earn a majority of STEM degrees compared to Black men. However, they are the most underpaid compared to any of their counterparts across race, ethnicity, and gender.


“You’ve got a lot of women who are very capable and are getting STEM degrees, and then for some reason are choosing to go elsewhere for their career,” says Jamin Speer, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Memphis and the author of the study. “If you’re trying to focus on this problem of women in STEM, you can’t just narrow in on one time. You can’t just say, ‘Well, if I just focus all my attention on college freshmen, I’ll solve this whole thing.’”


“You’ve got a lot of women who are very capable and are getting STEM degrees, and then for some reason are choosing to go elsewhere for their career.”

If at thirteen I was begging to write a story about a man in science, at nineteen I was begging to do the opposite. In my sophomore year of college, I took a class called “Science as Narrative.” For our first assignment, we had to decide on a topic in science before 1700 which we would focus on for the next several weeks. I began the class thinking that I wanted to choose some topic related to women, but once I ventured further back in time than Madame Curie, I was lost for options.


Ultimately, I don’t think there was a gigantic change of heart between age thirteen and age nineteen. In both instances, I wanted a good story; when I was nineteen, I wanted a good story that was distinctly feminine. It wasn’t because I wanted to honor the women in science who came before me or thank them for proving themselves so I could have a place in a science lab. It wasn’t because I was tired of tuning out locker-room talk in majority-male classes. It wasn’t because it was sad to watch my female friends abandon their science dreams for other passions. But I do think I wanted some sort of validation that science and femininity were not in direct opposition to each other.


The current narrative of science history suggests that women act as trailblazers as they enter the field, donning high-tech spacesuits to survive in foreign laboratory buildings in which none of their co-workers know where the ladies’ room is. I had always heard so much about women who succeeded in spite of being women, but the stories I explored at nineteen and beyond helped me realize that women have been scientists much longer than we were led to believe. We just weren’t allowed to call it that.


Starting in ancient times, in societies where childbirth was a solely-female affair, women practiced inquiry, discovery, and dissemination through midwifery. There were also plenty of women who did work under their husbands’ names, from Madame Lavoisier to Mileva Maric. More recently in history (the early 20th century), the field of computing was so female-dominated that the power of electronic computers was measured in “kilo-girls.” African American women staffed an initially segregated computing unit of NASA known as the West Area Computers, contributing to America’s advances in the Space Race.


I had always heard so much about women who succeeded in spite of being women, but the stories I explored at nineteen and beyond helped me realize that women have been scientists much longer than we were led to believe. We just weren’t allowed to call it that.

To qualify this idea, it’s important to recognize that women still face significant barriers to participation in the formal scientific sphere. When I corresponded with Ferry, she noted traditional expectations that a male partner’s career is prioritized over a female’s, in addition to blatant discrimination or subtler bias. Women of color may face racial discrimination or cultural isolation in addition to gender bias, further hindering their access to the field. While addressing all of these barriers is crucial, it's also worth considering expanding the definition of science to include more forms of inquiry that are traditionally practiced by women.



An illustrated black-and-white photo of Katharine Johnson sitting in front of her typewriter, set on a beige background.
GPA Photo Archive/The Xylom Illustration


“There is a substantial gender gap in STEM. However, I would argue it’s not quite as big as people think. And that’s because of how we’ve defined STEM traditionally,” Speer said, noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not currently classify the healthcare professions as STEM careers. However, this excludes many majority-female professions such as nursing (or, to a growing extent, medicine), and it may account for the reason many women with college degrees in fields such as biology are seen as leaking out of the STEM pipeline when in reality they are still using what they learned.


“Women are finding different ways of applying the skills they are learning,” Speer said. “Just because women don’t become physicists doesn’t mean they’re not using their STEM skills. They are. They’re just using them in different ways.”


In Maria Tatar’s The Heroine with 1001 Faces, the Harvard professor contends that when viewing women’s history through the lens of literature, curiosity, and discovery have always been feminine qualities. Are those not, also, distinctly scientific qualities? Tatar goes on to mention social justice as another common theme that makes an engaging heroine story, a point that I find many female scientist stories are missing.


Tatar cites Nancy Drew in one example, one of my favorite literary heroines growing up. Nancy created physics contraptions to escape from traps and took her blue Roadster apart piece by piece before putting it back together again. If Nancy Drew were rewritten today, I feel like a marketer would instantly brand her as a “woman in science” to get more publicity. But Nancy Drew’s exploits did not take place today; they took place ninety years ago with goals such as saving an orphan or returning stolen property. Because of this, she remains a girl detective in the public sphere.


Going beyond the fictional, Des Jardins explored the story of Jane Goodall and other female primatologists in her book. In Goodall’s stories, I don’t see as many images of sterile laboratories or strictly controlled experiments. Instead, Goodall’s knowledge came from the patient observation of chimps in their natural habitat. She even named her subjects instead of numbering them, a decision that was initially perceived as unprofessional but in reality, allowed her to group related subjects together. “Goodall [...] did not study primates the way men in the field were studying them. And as a consequence, she redefined the field of primatology.” Des Jardins said. “Her different orientation to the animals, like that of fellow primatologists Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, had much to do with their position as women in primatology and as female scientists. They played by different rules, and the results enhanced our understanding of primates and humans’ relationship to them.”



In contrast, Ferry noted some instances in which the women she interviewed believed that gender had nothing to do with their success, instead attributing it to other factors. In one example she described Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, an X-ray crystallographer who solved the structure of penicillin, insulin, and Vitamin B12. Ferry published a biography of Hodgkin in 2019.


“She wanted passionately to make the world a better place, and so chose to work on medically important problems. But I would deny that her gender played a role in that choice. I’ve met plenty of male scientists with the same motivation,” Ferry said. “I think overall that gender is of minor importance to success in science, relative to personal characteristics such as creativity, extreme determination, resilience, [or] teamwork.”


 

After getting my “Science as Narrative” assignment in college, I ultimately received permission to make up a female character, in this case, an Austrian midwife, while still providing enough historical context to show I actually did the readings. After all, even with the large list of women I have described above, the majority of female contributions to history are anonymous. I might have taken the easy way out of the assignment, but I don’t regret the opportunity for reflection that it gave me. Creating my own character felt more humanizing to me than a textbook photo-turned-icon of Marie Curie.


Creating my own character felt more humanizing to me than a textbook photo-turned-icon of Marie Curie.

When it comes to young people searching for careers, the stories a society tells have an extremely potent ability to shape the kinds of people we are inspired to be. However, many of the “women in science” stories I saw growing up failed to link the cycle of knowledge and discovery to a broader purpose. In contrast, Nancy Drew uses her knowledge to right wrongs, while Goodall not only observed chimpanzees but also argued for their protection through conservation activism. Maybe that’s what has been missing in the way we tell stories about science all along.


It’s easy for me to say that “women have always been scientists,” but it’s fair to say that women still face significant barriers in formal scientific fields, fields that could benefit from the unique insights women have to offer. Beyond removing systemic barriers for women in science or redefining it, the question of how to engage more women is not a matter of showing girls that they can do something in spite of who they are. It’s a matter of acknowledging the qualities that women have already had for millennia.


 


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Ellie Rose Mattoon

From Texas, Ellie Rose is pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Molecular & Cellular Biology/Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on fungi, ranging from the chemical makeup and potential applications of fungi-derived melanin to fungal thermotolerance, and fungal infections during the COVID-19 pandemic. She concurrently serves as the Science and Technology Editor of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, the independent student newspaper of the Johns Hopkins University. She has received an Astronaut Scholarship, a Louis Azrael Fellowship in Communications, and a Jason H.P & Beverly N. Kravitt Award as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.

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