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International Women’s Day: Taking a Hard Look at the Future Face of Science

It’s 2019 and we’re still learning what a scientist is supposed to look like.

In 1993, a group of performance artists swapped the voice boxes of talking children’s toys and distributed them in stores across the U.S. The results were Barbies who roared “Attack!” and “Vengeance is mine!” while G. I. Joe’s soldiers twittered “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Let’s plan our dream wedding!” The implication was clear: men and women are expected to have specific interests, and these expectations can be reinforced virtually anywhere. Just talk to a male nurse. While women have achieved some of the highest levels of sports, politics, medicine, and science, and serve as role models for all of us, there is clearly a long way to go still in 2019 when it comes to business, science, and technology.

Out of the S&P 500, only two dozen CEOs are women. When asked what a “scientist looks like,” children describe someone predominantly male, white and older. While this may be categorically wrong, it makes sense, given that 97% of the science Nobel Prize winners have been men. What are the consequences? Are we holding women back in the classroom, in the lab, in leadership, and as award winners? Are we preventing advanced research that can benefit all of us?

It’s been shown that this implicit bias can affect women’s ability to publish research findings and gain recognition for that work. Men cite their own papers 56% more than women do. Known as the “Matilda Effect,” there is resulting gender gap in recognition – including awards and academic citations. Women’s research is less likely to be cited by others. Their ideas are more likely to be attributed to men. Women’s solo-authored research papers take twice as long to move through the review process.  Women experts are less likely to be called on. This marginalisation in research gatekeeping positions works against the promotion of women’s research.

Traditional stereotypes hold that women ‘don’t like math’ and ‘aren’t good at science.’ Studies show that girls and women avoid Stem education not because of cognitive inability, but because of early exposure and experience with Stem, educational policy, cultural context, stereotypes and a lack of exposure to role models.

In response, in recognition of International Women’s Day this year, we are recognizing six women of science who continue to influence technology and scientific theory today. These are our heroes. International Women’s Day began in 1911 and more than 100 years later, continues to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all around the world. The goal is to achieve collective action and shared responsibility for creating gender-balance in every industry worldwide.

Women of Scientific Influence

Marie Curie, a Polish physicist, conducted ground-breaking research on radioactivity, assisting in the war time effort by manufacturing and training aides on how to use her mobile radiography units and exactly how to administer Radon to sterilize infected tissues. Marie Curie continued to study the effects of radiology on the body, assisting doctors to develop radiation therapy as a treatment plan for cancer patients. Marie Curie became the first women to win a Nobel Prize in 1903, where she was recognized for her work to advance physics. She later went on to win a second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911.

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist and x-ray crystallographer who conducted research to better understand the molecular compounds and structures of DNA and viruses. She, alongside her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, discovered the two forms of DNA, A and B, along with the double helical backbone. Recently, the European Space Agency announced they have named the 2020 Mars rover after Rosalind, due to her revolutionary findings and passion for research and exploration.

Gertrude Elion was an American biochemist who developed the very first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, a vital medicine used in organ transplants. She also invented drugs that treat cancer, malaria, meningitis, herpes and gout. Gertrude, alongside colleagues George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black, received the Nobel Prize in the Physiology or Medicine category for her discoveries of “important new principles of drug treatment.” During her time as a biochemist, Gertrude worked for the National Cancer institute and the World Health Organization, and was awarded various prizes for her research achievements. She was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Donna Strickland is a Canadian physicist who invented chirped pulse amplification. In later years, this invention was further developed into high-intensity ultrashort pulses of light beams, to aid in corrective laser eye surgeries and cancer treatments. She has authored over 90 publications related to laser technology and continues to push the boundaries of ultrafast optical science. Donna was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, alongside her doctoral advisor Gerard Mourou.

Nina Tandon is an American biomedical engineer who specializes in cardiac tissue engineering. Nina’s research focuses on attempting to force cells to grow or become stimulated through the use of electrical currents. She has successfully grown cells on rats and hopes to one day be able to grow entire human organs. In 2012, Nina was named a senior TED Fellow and has been recognized by dozens of companies for her commitment to scientific research. Nina has since founded EpiBone, an organization that develops technology enabling bone tissue to be created from a patient’s stem cells to be used in bone grafts.

France Arnold has an educational career that has spanned Princeton, Berkeley, and CalTech across mechanical, aerospace, and chemical engineering. She is one of the world’s foremost experts in renewable fuels and in 2018 won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. She has used the principles of evolution – genetic change and selection – to develop proteins that solve humankind’s chemical problems. In 1993, Arnold conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. The uses of her results include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels.

The Nobel Prize and the Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to 51 women, twice to Marie Curie – 17 have received the Peace Prize, 14 the Prize in Literature, 12 in Physiology/Medicine, 5 in Chemistry (including Curie), 3 in Physics (including Curie) and 1 in Economic Sciences.


The theme for 2019 is #BalanceForBetter, a call-to-action from the organization to evaluate male to female representation and differences in pay throughout all major industries. The goal is to build a gender-balanced world, including equal representation in boardrooms, sports media coverage, and science. It’s been shown to lead to better decisions, which we will need to tackle the challenges we’ll face this century.

The innovative women highlighted from the 20th century struggled to overcome gender boundaries when looking for post-secondary institutions to attend and when finding full-time work. When looking at women’s role in today’s society it’s clear we’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go until we eliminate gender bias all together. The Balance for Better campaign is providing a “unified direction to guide and galvanize continuous collective action.”

The more campaigns like this succeed, the more all of us will benefit. Happy International Women’s Day from the Possibility Hub.