The names Watson and Crick are inseparably linked to the discovery of the DNA double helix. However, Rosalind Franklin made an important—if not the most important—contribution to the structural elucidation of our genetic material with her X-ray diffraction images. Franklin is considered a prime example of the Matilda effect: the systematic repression of women's contributions to research.
The term was coined in 1993 by science historian Margaret Rossiter. She named the effect after Matilda Joslyn Gage, an American activist and author who died in 1889 and is considered a pioneer in the field of equality. The physicist Lise Meitner is also an example of this mechanism. She worked with Otto Hahn for decades and in 1939 realised that the two had discovered nuclear fission together. Five years later Hahn received the Nobel Prize for this achievement—and him alone.
In the past 120 years, more than 800 men have received a Nobel Prize, but only just under 50 women. Not a single female scientist is among the 2019 winners. However, Annette Denzinger, Equal Opportunities Officer of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Tübingen in Germany, believes that one should not only look at the absolute numbers. Rather, one has to take into account how many women work—and have worked—in science at all: Nobel Prizes are usually awarded for research results that go back many years. In other words, at a time when far fewer women were active in science than today.
Even today, women are still clearly underrepresented in science. For example, according to Denzinger, who has been equal opportunities officer at the University of Tübingen since 1992, the proportion of female professors has increased over the last ten years, but only from around ten to around 21 percent. Women also speak less frequently at congresses or conferences. According to a recent study by the Royal Society of Chemistry, publications by teams led by a female lead author are even quoted less frequently than those by male lead authors.
According to Denzinger, this is due to the grown culture of science rather than deliberate discrimination. “The form of communication in a male-dominated system is male. Women are simply less visible and therefore disadvantaged.” This disadvantage adds up across career levels—and contributes to the enormous imbalance in Nobel Prizes.
The proportion of women decreases with advancing career level, among other reasons, because application and appointment procedures tend to sift out female researchers: with comparable qualifications and results, they are often perceived as less competent than their male colleagues. This effect is explicitly demonstrated by an experiment conducted by a team led by Jo Handelsman from Yale University: They sent an application for a position as laboratory manager—either under a male or under a female name—to over 100 US professors. They rated the male applicant as more qualified than the identical application by a woman. They also offered the “applicant” a higher salary.
Jason Sheltzer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, together with colleagues, noted that elite researchers in the USA prefer male scientists. Training or employment in their top-class laboratories is considered to be the gateway to professorship. The researchers assume that this bottleneck is also an important reason for the low proportion of women in leading scientific positions.
A question of priorities
Denzinger is certain, however, that numerous other factors play a role in addition to such direct discrimination. The phase after the doctorate—the postdoc period—is often decisive for whether women stay in science. According to surveys, family and children are more important to them than men. “Family work is still mainly the responsibility of women,” says Denzinger. Because it is still difficult to reconcile this with an academic career, many women tend to withdraw completely.
“Especially in the phase of starting a family, maximum flexibility is expected from young female scientists. They usually don't get a permanent position, have to move around a lot, and preferably go abroad—women tend to say no to that,” says Denzinger. While in 2018, approximately the same number of men and women will complete their doctoral theses at the University of Heidelberg, the proportion of women among habilitators —potential professors—was only about 27 percent. The proportion of female junior research group leaders was about the same.
However, Denzinger also sees positive developments—the equal opportunities measures initiated at many universities over the last few years are beginning to bear fruit. For example, the proportion of junior professors at the Universities of Tübingen and Heidelberg is currently around 50 percent. Whether this trend will also be reflected in the filling of professorships in the long term cannot be guaranteed and remains to be seen, says Denzinger.
According to statistics from the German Research Foundation (DFG), women are now just as successful in attracting funding from outside the university as men. As Denzinger explains, universities and employers nowadays pay attention to equality in many areas, for example in the appointment procedure for professorships, where, among other things, the length of time the applicants have been in science plays a role. This would also take into account phases of childcare. In addition, many universities now offer childcare opportunities.
Today, many universities specifically promote women in MINT (mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology) subjects and offer special programmes to promote women and families. At the University of Heidelberg, for example, there is the “Olympia Morata” programme for the advancement of women, which is aimed specifically at young women scientists who have completed their doctorates.
At the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Tübingen there are, among other things, grants for research assistants. These are not only available for women with children, but also for men who play a major role in the care of their children, reports Denzinger. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Honorary Professor and long-standing Max Planck Director of the University of Tübingen as well as AcademiaNet member, established a foundation in 2004 to support talented young female scientists with children.
She herself received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995 for her research on the genetic control of embryonic development, together with colleagues. In 2018, Donna Strickland (Physics) and Frances Arnold (Chemistry), two female scientists, were awarded the Nobel Prize—this gives hope for the future.(© Annika Röcker / Spektrum.de)