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Spotlight on Women in Science

Beyond Science

Female scientists are unequally rare. To raise awareness of this issue, women all over the world are celebrating the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science.”

"If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say." states Barbara McClintock the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist known for her discoveries with regulation of genetic expression. This should be a mantra to build self-confidence for girls and women who are interested in science.

Without female scientists, we would be missing out on many important discoveries that sustainably influence our life. However, a recent study by the Women in Global Science and Technology initiative, figured out that “women remain severely under-represented in engineering, physics and computer science with a share of less than 30 % in most countries”. In an effort to change this and to raise awareness of this issue, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, declared February 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

A long history

The world of science can look back on many important women who deeply influenced and spurred key developments with their thoughts, ideas and experiments.
In ancient times it was common for women to contribute to the development of scientific knowledge. They worked as midwives and healers in early civilizations and passed on medical know-how from generation to generation. In ancient Greece, the study of philosophy was open to women. In the first and second century AD, women were also involved in the study of alchemy. Women even studied in the Middle Ages, primarily as nuns in convents.

Turning point in the High Middle Ages

It was when the first universities were established in the 11th century that science transformed into a male domain. For the most part, women were excluded from attending universities. It was centuries before Elena Piscopia became the first woman to receive a doctorate in 1678. More than 50 years later, Laura Bassi was the second woman ever to obtain a doctorate, after which she became the first female chair of a university science department. These two women's careers were an exception however. Until the early 20th century, very few women had to opportunity to freely pursue an education. Back then, women were often prevented from publishing results in scientific journals, or contributions to the work of male colleagues were simply not mentioned. Female scientists received no funding and were denied the space to work, not to mention the fact that the door to most scientific organizations was shut. In the face of such obstacles, these pioneering female scientists had one thing in common: a fearless passion to exploit their potential.

Although 18 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in science or medicine to date, many exceptional female scientific minds are unknown to the public. It was Rosalind Franklin, not James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA for instance. Although Otto Hahn was credited for the discovery of nuclear fission, he worked together with Lise Meitner. And let's not forget Grace Hopper, the mother of computer programming who was overshadowed by the likes of Bill Gates and Steven Jobs. The list goes on...

The challenge remains

Although it may appear that the field of science is open to anyone today, regardless of gender, the fact is, the so-called STEM disciplines - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - remain primarily a male playground.

To improve the gender balance in science, UNESCO initiated the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science”. Irina Bokova, UNESCO's General Director, pointed out in a message: “The world needs science and science needs women”. We must face the challenges of our planet and human living - sustainability, climate change and poverty are topics of utmost importance. As Ms. Bokova adds: “Humanity cannot afford to ignore half of its creative genius”.

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