The Unacknowledgement Of Women In STEM

Many historical women in STEM have made groundbreaking discoveries, but have been unacknowledged and people have stolen their credit due to them being women, but it’s time for this issue to come to light and change.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Stacey Chen

Women have too often been overlooked in their scientific accomplishments throughout history due to severely ingrained patriarchal norms. Women have been making innovative contributions to the STEM area for centuries—however, there have been many famous cases where men took credit for female scientists’ discoveries. Here are four women who made amazing breakthroughs in the field, but have been hidden in the shadows until now:

Alice Ball: Alice Ball was a pioneering African American chemist who revolutionized the treatment of leprosy. Leprosy, caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, is a contagious, airborne disease that affects the eyes, skin, upper respiratory tract, and peripheral nerves. In the past, an Indian and Chinese method of applying oil from nuts from the chaulmoogra tree was used to reduce the symptoms of leprosy. However, this was very difficult to do because this oil couldn't be injected into the bloodstream. Since oil and blood can’t mix because they have different densities, the treatment was so difficult that patients were often not treated and were simply taken into isolated rooms to die. Fortunately, Ball found a solution in 1915. As a chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii, she figured out how to separate the oil into fatty acids and ethyl esters so that the medicine would be more soluble in water and therefore injectable. Chaulmoogra oil was much more effective inside the body rather than outside, so Ball’s discovery was used to treat leprosy patients from then. Sadly, a year later, at the age of 24, Ball died unexpectedly from chlorine gas exposure in a lab accident. The head of her department, Authur Dean, took credit for her work and named the separation method the “Dean's Method.” It has only been a few decades since Alice Ball was acknowledged as the true scientist responsible for this discovery, and the method is now rightfully known as “Ball's Method.”

Eunice Foote: Eunice Foote was an amateur scientist and one of the first to experiment with the effects of different atmospheric gasses on solar heat. She was a pioneer in hypothesizing and demonstrating the greenhouse effect, which is a key part of climate science and is especially relevant to today’s issue of global warming. In her experiment, Foote put different gasses in separate glass cylinders, each with a mercury thermometer, and left them in the Sun's rays to see which gas caused the greatest increase in surrounding air temperature. She discovered that the Sun’s rays were warmer in moist air and warmest in the carbon dioxide cylinder. She published her discovery in the American Journal Of Science in 1857, but it was largely ignored despite having requested permission from a group of male scientists in order to be able to even publish her findings in the first place. Three years later, British scientist John Tyndall did some further research on this topic and published his findings. However, only he was recognized as the discoverer of the greenhouse effect and Eunice Foote was never mentioned. Only recently have scientists tried to give Foote the credit she deserves for initially discovering this key phenomenon.

Lise Meitner: Lise Meitner, a Jewish woman living in Berlin in the 1940s, was a major contributor to the discovery of nuclear fusion. After getting her doctorate from the University of Vienna, she joined the nuclear fusion research team with scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. She suggested they blast uranium atoms with neutrons to learn more about uranium decay. However, before getting the chance to observe the results of her research, she had to flee her home and seek refuge in Stockholm to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Back in Berlin, after following Meitner's advice, Hahn and Strassman succeeded in finding the evidence for nuclear fusion, but only Meitner was able to successfully describe the actual concept of nuclear fusion. Nevertheless, Hahn won the Nobel Prize for “his” discovery of nuclear fusion and never acknowledged Meitner’s contribution. Meitner was so intelligent that Albert Einstein, one of the few to recognize her input, is said to have called her the “German Marie Curie.” Meitner was even offered a job doing research for the Manhattan Project (a project where Americans were trying to create an atomic bomb), but Meitner turned down the offer, stating, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” She was rewarded for her key contributions to nuclear fusion years later with the Enrico Fermi Award alongside Hahn and Strassman, but she never received the Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin: Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and researcher in the 1950s. She was the initial discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, which completely changed scientists' understanding of DNA and still has implications in the field to this day. Franklin worked with her student Raymond Gosling and fellow scientist Maurice Wilkins as they studied crystallography (observing the atomic and molecular structure) to discover the structure of DNA. However, Wilkins and Franklin did not have a good partner relationship. Wilkins viewed Franklin as an assistant rather than a member of his team, and complained that Franklin was “too independent,” demonstrating yet again the injustice female scientists face in the workplace. When Franklin and Gosling were finally able to take the crystallography picture that showed the double helix form of DNA, most historians claim that Wilkins shared the photograph and their data with two other scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, without even consulting Franklin. This led to the credit for the discovery of DNA structure to go to Wilkins, Watson, and Crick, all of whom received the Nobel Prize instead of Franklin. Sadly, Franklin soon died from cancer before the majority of the scientific community realized that it was her who had taken this trailblazing picture.

While the sexist mindset in the realm of STEM research has decreased over time, it is still present today. To illustrate this, though women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce (48 percent in 2019), they only make up 27 percent of STEM workers, including computer scientists, biologists, astronauts, civil engineers, industrial engineers, and chemists. The current situation is certainly a step up from the 1900s, but the statistics remain low. Moreover, women in STEM fields are often paid less than men with the same jobs. The median earning of women in STEM careers, which is around $66,200 is $23,800 less than men’s median earning in STEM, which is $90,000. Women are paid 74 percent of what men are paid in the same occupations. The gender pay gap in STEM jobs decreased minorly from 72 percent in 2016, but it’s still an active problem.

However, actions are being taken to resolve gender discrimination. For instance, Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau LLC, a firm that advocates for the rights of employees, has helped numerous people who were underpaid just because of their gender. Additionally, many feminist organizations fight against gender discrimination, such as the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Global Grassroots, and UN Women. Some current innovative female scientists are Cori Bargmann, who researches the causes behind neurological orders such as Alzheimer’s and autism, and Jennifer Doudna, whose newly discovered methods of genetic engineering make curing genetic diseases much easier. There are still many unacknowledged women lost in the depths of history. Hopefully one day, after enough in-depth research, we will be able to give credit to these deserving women for their groundbreaking work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.