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The matilda effect


The hidden side of scientific discoveries

If you studied biology, you must have heard the names of James Watson and Francis Crick for their discovery of the helical structure of DNA, or Thomas Hunt-Morgan for his Nobel Prize for his discoveries in heredity. But have you heard of Rosalind Franklin or Nettie Stevens? No? It’s because of what we call .....


The matilda effect

The Matilda effect takes its name from Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th-century American feminist, abolitionist, and writer who brought this phenomenon to light by bringing together the situations in which men have attributed all the merits of a discovery made by a woman [1]. The list of Nobel laureates is a clear illustration [2].


Indeed, if we take again all the Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2020 we count 58 prizes addressed to women against 876 addressed to men, or 6% of the Nobel Prize! The finding is even more distressing for scientific Nobel Prizes (excluding the Nobel Peace and Literature Prizes): 25 women for 685 men, or 3.5%.


So yes, there are fewer women in scientific research (and that’s a shame) but this ratio does not explain this huge difference in awarding Nobel prizes. Researchers have verified this by comparing the ratios of Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, economics, physiology, and medicine to the percentages of genders in these research areas [3]. Their results show that the probability that the distribution of Nobel Prizes does not favor men is less than 4%, that is, women are indeed much less represented in the Nobel Prizes than the male/female ratios in scientific research would suggest.


Fighting the Matilda Effect

The consequences of this effect are many:

  • Continuity of social and occupational inequalities;

  • Decreased visibility of women in the scientific world;

  • Disempowerment of women’s scientific skills, disinterest in science by women.

It is therefore essential to combat this effect so that everyone is recognized for their discoveries. Many initiatives have emerged that seek to put women at the forefront of science:

  • In 2015, the United Nations in association with Princess Dr. Nisreen, known for defying the Royal Iraqi Protocol and becoming a physician and geneticist, launches the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science” which will now be celebrated every year on 11 February [4].

  • On the second Tuesday of October, Ada Lovelace Day [5], in tribute to mathematician and computer scientist Ada Lovelace, creator of the first computer program, values the place of women in science and in particular aims to increase the visibility of women in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

  • Ada Lovelace also named a school, AdaTechSchool, founded in 2019 by Chloé Hermary to “tackle gender biases in computing” [6]. This school proposes to discover, through an exhibition available online, all the «Matildas» in computer science.

  • The Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT) launched a campaign in 2021 called #NoMoreMatildas to highlight women scientists in textbooks [7].

The gender gap, through the efforts put in place, is beginning to narrow, as the infographic below shows: over the past 20 years there have been more Nobel laureates than in the entire 20th century [8].


Credit: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/
Recognizing the women behind the great discoveries

This list cannot be exhaustive but it is possible to illustrate the preceding remarks and to highlight some women of science for their major discoveries.


Rosalind Franklin [9]

British physicochemical born in 1920 and died in 1958, Rosalind Franklin was the first to observe the DNA molecule in its X-shape (double helix) and to take a photo of it, photograph 51. She did not publish anything at the time, preferring to continue her research to validate her observation. Without his permission, his colleague Maurice Wilkins passed the shot on to James Watson and Francis Crick, who were working to discover the shape of cell DNA. In 1953, the three men published an article in Nature, neglecting the importance of cliché 51 and the essential contribution of Rosalind Franklin to this discovery [10], which earned them the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology-Medicine.



Jocelyn Bell [11]

Jocelyn Bell, born in 1943, is a British astrophysicist who worked in particular on the construction of a radio telescope to study quasars (supermassive black holes in the center of an extremely bright region) which was completed in 1967. She then observed the first pulsar (an astronomical object producing a periodic signal) in history. It was his thesis supervisor Anthony Hewish who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 for this discovery.



Nettie Stevens [12]


Nettie Stevens was an American geneticist born in 1861 and died in 1912. She found that the sex of each individual is determined by genetic characteristics. His importance in this discovery was neglected for the benefit of his mentor Thomas Hunt Morgan, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1933 for his work on the relationship between genetics and heredity.




Bibliography

1. Rossiter, M. W. (1993). The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science. Social Studies of Science, 23(2), 325–341. doi:10.1177/030631293023002004

2. Richter, F. (2020, October 13). Infographic: The nobel prize gender gap. Statista Infographics. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/chart/2805/nobel-prize-winners-by-gender/

3. Lunnemann, P., Jensen, M.H. & Jauffred, L. Gender bias in Nobel prizes. Palgrave Commun 5, 46 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0256-3

4. HRH princess dr. Nisreen El-Hashemite. The Founder - February11. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.womeninscienceday.org/the-founder.html

5. Celebrating the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Ada Lovelace Day. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://findingada.com/

6. Qui sommes-nous ? - école d'Informatique - Ada Tech School. adatechschool. (2023, March 7). Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://adatechschool.fr/qui-sommes-nous/

7. #nomorematildas. #NoMoreMatildas. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.nomorematildas.com/

9. Demeure, Y. (2020, December 19). Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) : Découvreuse de la structure en double hélice de l'adn. Sciencepost. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://sciencepost.fr/rosalind-franklin-1920-1958-decouvreuse-de-la-structure-en-double-helice-de-ladn/

10. WATSON, J., CRICK, F. Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature 171, 737–738 (1953). https://doi.org/10.1038/171737a0

11. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 22). Jocelyn Bell. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jocelyn_Bell

12. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, January 17). Nettie Stevens. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nettie_Stevens


Written by Loane D.

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