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What History Reminds Us About Women in STEM

Julie Des Jardins

Throughout history, women have played an integral, often underrecognized, role in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). From the previously “Hidden Figures” who were central to NASA’s success to those whose scientific research was critical to the Covid vaccine, women have made indelible contributions to the most significant advances of eras past. 

For every Marie Curie, however, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women whose names are unknown. In honor of Women’s History Month, we revisit the lives and work of women who impart lessons about gender in STEM and leadership pipelines today:

Rosalind Franklin: A Cautionary Tale about Attribution, Belonging, and Being Heard

Most people probably know Rosalind Franklin as a victim in history, if they know her at all. She was an ambitious, talented, and devoted scientist, and her research around protein structures at Kings College in the early 1950s was essential to how we now understand DNA. Like many women whose science is made invisible by the gendered culture of the lab, she teaches us to be mindful of better ways to foster female talent in STEM organizations today.

Franklin felt the effects of social isolation at Kings College from the start. The institution was a gentleman’s club — only eight of thirty-one scientists on staff were women, one or two of whom worked with Franklin directly. Women were not permitted to smoke or take coffee in the break room; Franklin ate alone and kept to herself unless directly approached. While colleagues like Jim Watson mistook Franklin’s discomfort with confrontation as haughtiness and severity, it was more likely that she felt like she didn’t belong.

Unbeknownst to Franklin, her colleague Maurice Wilkins walked into her lab and showed Frances Crick and Jim Watson her crystallographic images of DNA. Watson recalled the moment in his best-selling book The Double Helix — her “Photo 51” provided visual proof of DNA’s helical structure. Crick and Watson began building molecular models based on Franklin’s image, editing them as they bounced ideas off each other over dinner, tennis, or beers at the pub. Their collaborative process led to their discovery of the Double Helix, which won them a Nobel Prize in 1962.

Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, at the age of 37; she hadn’t known that her photograph had opened the floodgates to discovery until well after credit for it had been attributed to men. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, but her notebooks reveal that indeed Franklin had been on the precipice of making Crick and Watson’s discovery before them. In fact, she had delivered papers providing the data that Crick and Watson had used to confirm their models, and yet she made no bold claims of discovery, believing that she needed more indisputable data to back her up. She felt the need to be doubly, even triply right, before going out on a limb and making claims for which Crick and Watson had no original data at all. Such is the scrutiny women often feel compared to male colleagues, who are given more leeway to take risks, fail, and then to learn from their mistakes. Studies suggest that even today, men are more regularly judged on potential, women on personality and proved performance[1]. For women of color, the dynamic is even more pronounced, the line even finer to walk.

Franklin’s story begs questions that apply to women in STEM and most organizations today: Would her ideas have been acknowledged had she mentors and male allies in the lab? Had she felt more psychological safety, would she have shared data as she developed it, as well as theories — right or wrong — and then benefitted from the feedback of others? Had her ideas been amplified and supported, had her colleagues been more inclusive, had they created even just informal rules of engagement that allowed her voice to be heard—would Franklin, too, have been credited for discovering the structure of DNA?

Margaret Mead: Reimagining the Woman in Tech

In 1957 the anthropologist Margaret Mead teamed up with Rhoda Metreaux to run a little experiment: They asked a group of high school students to describe an ideal scientist. Who the students described was intellectual and cold; if a forensic illustrator drew a composite sketch, the image would have donned a white lab coat, been bespectacled, and bearded. The scientist conjured was monolithically male, despite the influx of women into scientific programs and jobs that men vacated during World War II [2]. Today, a similar experiment might yield a composite image somewhat more diversified, albeit wearing a hoodie — yet still decidedly masculine.

Until we collectively associate science with the more culturally feminine, our unconscious bias will continue to lead us to hire, promote, and give credit for innovation to men more often than women. 

We can reduce the leaky drip of women from the pipeline by monitoring for pay equity and offering family-friendly benefits that give women flexibility as they pursue STEM careers. But women who are passionate about scientific inquiry often leave STEM fields anyway, sensing that they are not a ‘cultural fit.’ Retaining women for the longer term requires creating environments that make them feel like they can be their whole selves, which requires some conscious debunking of historical myths:

  • The Myth of Scientific Genius: In Silicon Valley and in STEM sectors generally, the tech geek is lionized for his disheveled eccentricity — since the rise of nuclear physicists in World War II (think Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman), we have associated traits like myopic focus and even social awkwardness with the cerebral acumen of genius, and then assumed that these traits are inherently more evident in men. We need not to think of scienticity — the ability to think, and act, and be scientific or tech-like — as a trait that is masculine to the core. Until then, women will continue to feel like they don’t fully belong in STEM fields, whether they demonstrate real genius or not.
  • The Myth of the Ideal Worker. Lore tells us that game-changing ideas come to the tech elite in their 20s and 30s (yes, prime child-bearing years for women), while putting in 100-hour weeks in the lab. The fiction that the most valuable information worker burns the midnight oil hurts men and women alike, yet it persists in tech fields anyway. Plenty of men quietly resent feeling like they cannot leave work to attend a parent-teacher conference, while women resent presumptions of their domesticity, whether they accrue facetime in the lab or not. Research tells us that productivity, especially of the cerebral variety, is not maximized by long hours — it’s time we stop perpetuating the outdated misconception of the ideal worker.
  • Myths about Light Bulb Epiphanies and Lone Wolves. The image of technological breakthroughs happening in singular “a-ha” moments, in which one person instantaneously comes up with the idea that transforms life as we know it, should be relegated to comic books of old. And yet innovation is still often imagined and rewarded as an individualist enterprise. Be it the Internet, the IPhone, or CRISPR, paradigm-shifting ideas develop through collaborative networks. Women and people of color are often integrally involved yet anonymized in the process of discovery, and politics of attribution sometimes exacerbate their invisibility. Innovation is a team sport. Women contribute to it not just with different questions and diverse perspectives, but acumen, dedication, empathy, and soft skills that grease the machine.

There are many other lessons we can learn from the many women of the Manhattan Project, the Harvard Observatory, the Pentagon, and the Genome Project. But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is not to let history repeat itself. 

For more on Rosalind Franklin and the gendering of scientific myths, see Julie Des Jardins, “The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science” [Feminist Press, 2010].

[1] Deborah L. Rhode, Women and Leadership (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 13

[2] Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metreaux, “Image of the Scientist Among High School Students,” Science, August 20, 1957, 384-90.


March 30, 2021

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