Rediscovering The Lost Role Models For Girls Who Want To Be Scientists

This is an excerpt from Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science And The World, which features biographies of important female scientists you have—and perhaps haven't—ever heard of.
This is an excerpt from Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science And The World, which features biographies of important female scientists you have—and perhaps haven’t—ever heard of.

Women have made enormous contributions to STEM fields for centuries. But you might be hard pressed to know that from our regular histories. A new book gives these women their just credit.

My book about scientists began with beef stroganoff. According to the New York TimesYvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary published in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title of “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outcry did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh right. That.

The error—stroganoff before science; domesticity before personal achievement—is so cringe-worthy because it’s a common one. In 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won the greatest award that chemistry has to offer, a paper declared “Nobel Prize for British Wife,” as if she had stumbled upon the complex structures of biochemical substances while matching her husband’s socks. We simply don’t speak of men in science this way. Their marital status isn’t considered necessary context in a biochemical breakthrough. Employment as an important aerospace engineer is not the big surprise hiding behind a warm plate of noodles. For men, scientific accomplishments are accepted as something naturally within their grasp.

In 1899, the inventor and physicist Hertha Ayrtonput on a demonstration showing her latest breakthrough in calming the temperament of the arc light, long notorious for hissing and flickering. When the paper reported on the presentation, it treated Ayrton like some kind of circus performer: “What astonished the lady visitors. . .was to find one of their own sex in charge of the most dangerous-looking of all the exhibits. Mrs. Ayrton was not a bit afraid.” Annoyed by this and many other similar perspectives, Ayrton called out a persistent problem with the way she and her contemporaries like Marie Curie were treated: “The idea of ‘women and science’ is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex, point of view.”

Even today, it’s important we hear those words again. We need not only fairer coverage of women in science, but more of it.

Read more: Rediscovering The Lost Role Models For Girls Who Want To Be Scientists

 

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