Science & Gender: A Timeline of Inequality

Topics: Marie Curie

When you ask someone to name a scientist, is he or she just as likely to name a female as they are a male? I am inclined to say no, that there is a much greater likelihood that the first name they think of will be that of a man. Upon examining the relationship between science and gender across the past few centuries, a pattern emerges that supports this assumption. Throughout history, women have been marginalized in the path of scientific inquiry, and many of their contributions to the field have been written out of the history books, squeezed into fine print, or completely overshadowed by men (Bowler & Morus, 2005).

This pattern can be seen through examples from various fields of science across the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and there is still work to do in advocating for gender equality in science as we enter the 21st.

In the 18th century, women were not yet allowed in universities (Bowler & Morus, 2005). Generally, the elite were the ones with access to education, so wealthier women with family connections to science and academia were able to make contributions to the field. One example that shows this is Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze Lavoisier, the wife of chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (Eagle & Sloan, 1998).

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She worked collaboratively with her husband in his laboratory, and she also translated English works into French to aid in his research, such as Richard Kirwan’s “Essay on Phlogiston,” which allowed Lavoisier to dispute his ideas (Eagle & Sloan, 1998). Marie-Anne also worked to illustrate many of Lavoisier’s publications and published his memoirs (Eagle & Sloan, 1998). Lavoisier’s success came in large part due to the significant contributions of his wife, yet she is rarely given credit for her efforts (Eagle & Sloan, 1998). There is even a painting of the couple titled simply “Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife” hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Hess, 1977). This title underlines the lower social status of the few women with a connection to science; even those who greatly furthered their husband’s work through their own were seen as nothing more than their spouse instead of as an equal.

Another example from the 18th century is Wang Zhenyi. She came from a family of Chinese scholars, which allowed her to break the traditional Chinese gender norms of the time and become a successful female astronomer and mathematician (Peterson, 2000). Most notably, she was able to explain the phenomena of eclipses by developing her instruments (Peterson, 2000). Without the advantage of an educated family, Zhenyi would have been expected to stay at home working as a housekeeper rather than as a scientist, further illustrating how women needed a familial connection to participate in science during this time.

In the 19th century, a shift occurred: women began to be allowed access to university-level education (Bowler & Morus, 2005). One of the earliest women to make waves in the scientific world following this progress was Marie Curie. She was educated in Paris at the Sorbonne and went on to work with her husband, Pierre, to isolate two new radioactive substances—radium and polonium (Bowler & Morus, 2005). In 1903, she and Pierre together were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work; Marie was the first female scientist to receive the award and such public acknowledgment for her contributions rather than falling entirely into her husband’s shadow (Bowler & Morus, 2005). However, she was still not immune to obstacles in her career due to her gender. Her career was nearly destroyed by rumors of an affair with a younger, married physicist, Paul Langevin, following the death of her husband (Bowler & Morus, 2005). When Langevin’s wife found letters written by Marie Curie to Langevin, she made the alleged affair public knowledge, leading to a scandal that spread quickly across France (Wilkie, 1995). The Nobel committee even suggested that she not attend the award ceremony for receipt of her second prize as the event would take place in Stockholm where she would shake hands with the Swedish king—something, in their minds, an adulteress absolutely should not do (Wilkie, 1995). Affair scandals rarely tore through the reputations of men at the time; the shame and blame fell onto the women, and Marie Curie, despite her success, was no exception. However, she still attended her ceremony and had dinner with the king despite what anyone told her to do (Krulwich, 2010).

Though some women began to receive accolades for their work in the 19th century, others were still subject to disappearing in the shadow of their husbands. The name of Mary Horner Lyell, geologist, and conchologist, has all but disappeared in history. Her husband was Charles Lyell, the British geologist well known for his work Principles of Geology (Gale Research, 2002). Mary spent a great deal of time working alongside her husband, accompanying him on his expeditions to study stratigraphy and volcanoes. She also was fluent in German and French and would often translate scientific papers for Charles that he could not otherwise read (Gale Research, 2002). As Charles’ eyesight began to fail, Mary took over all of his correspondence and read papers to him to continue his career (Gale Research, 2002). Historians believe that Mary made many major contributions to her husband’s work for which she never received a credit of her own, and thus she has since been nearly forgotten (Gale Research, 2002).

As the 20th century rolled around, more women began attending universities and entering the field of science, but those who did often still found it difficult to be taken seriously by the men and the public (Bowler & Morus, 2005). An example of this is found in Rosalind Franklin. She studied physical chemistry and the natural sciences and went on to work in x-ray crystallography at King’s College in London where she was often excluded from work gatherings and discussions with her male colleagues (Bowler & Morus, 2005). Through her work, she produced the first x-ray images of DNA. These images were critical in aiding Watson & Crick in their discovery of DNA’s structure, but they were shown to them without Rosalind’s permission (Bowler & Morus, 2005). Furthermore, Watson & Crick received a Nobel Prize for their discovery after her death, and Watson went on to dismiss the importance of her photographs later on in his book The Double Helix (Bowler & Morus, 2005). Even though today she is remembered for her key contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix, Rosalind was not taken seriously by her male peers and did not receive proper credit for her work.

Another notable female scientist from the 20th century is Lise Meitner, who collaborated with Otto Hahn in the discovery of nuclear fission in Berlin (Maisel & Smart, 1997). Though Lise, like Rosalind Franklin, was successful during this period in working in academia and making a name for herself alongside the men, she still fell into the shadow of Otto Hahn. Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery while Meitner went completely unacknowledged, even though she was still alive at the time of the award (Rowe, 2018).

Today, in the 21st century, we are beginning to see more and more successful female scientists, such as Jane Goodall who conducted the first long-term behavioral study of chimpanzees in Gombe in the mid-20th century and now today continues to share her knowledge and advocate for environmental science through her books and public talks (Jane Goodall Institute, 2018). In the present day, we have begun to see a social movement, for which Jane Goodall also advocates, that centers on encouraging more women to join STEM fields in which they are underrepresented (Delony, 2017). The General Electric Company (GE) released an ad in 2017 that centered on Millie Dresselhaus, the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering, being treated in the way we traditionally treat celebrities. The videos show how Millie is becomebeing asked for photos, making talk show appearances, and even having her emoji becoming a popular Halloween costume for young girls. The ad asks the question: what if we treated female scientists like stars? It then goes on to highlight GE’s efforts to build such a world with its goal of 20,000 women in technical roles by the year 2020 (Jardine, 2017). GE’s advertisement is just one of many similar efforts in the media to promote science as a field of gender equality, such as companies marketing STEM-related toys to both genders. In the 21st century, science is becoming a field for both genders, with growing numbers of women in many different areas. At the University of Wisconsin- Madison this fall, 23.8% of engineering majors are women; in 1980, women made up just 15.5% of the program, and in 1946, only 1.0% (UW-Madison Office of the Registrar, 2018). However, science is only just beginning to become a field for both genders, and there is still a long way to go before it is truly equal.

From the 18th century to today, history shows some consistent patterns. In general, scientific discovery has been primarily reserved for and attributed to men as women have been consistently sidelined. Women were not allowed to receive higher education or research in many STEM fields, and once they were, very few made a name for themselves due to not being taken very seriously alongside their male colleagues. Additionally, contributions of women were frequently erased from history or lumped in with the work of their husbands or male peers. Eventually, gradual changes in society have allowed women to begin to prosper in science. Women now enter STEM fields in greater numbers than before, and society has more recently started to celebrate scientific discovery and involvement regardless of gender. Additionally, as science now involves more crossover between disciplines than in the past, the field more heavily values collaboration between peers rather than centering on an attitude of every man for himself.

Little girls that could have been budding female scientists in the 18th century were only lucky enough to pursue their dreams if they had connections to wealthy, intellectual families. In the 19th and 20th centuries, such little girls with dreams of going to college could finally see those dreams realized, but once there, they might get hit with the reality of not being respected as equals to their male peers. Today, little girls that dream of following in the footsteps of Jane Goodall in the wilds of Tanzania or being the first to set foot on Mars can finally see a path to their dreams through which they are supported by society. Maybe, by the end of this century, the relationship between science and gender will tell a more equal story.

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Science & Gender: A Timeline of Inequality. (2022, May 13). Retrieved from

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