Sexism in Science : A brief look at Matilda effect.

In the advent of the 21st century, where people are accustomed to a highly refined and progressive outlook for leading their lives; countless efforts have been made to bring down the existence of sexism in workplaces. Sexism is a rooted ideology based on the belief that one sex is superior to another. It is discrimination on the basis of gender, which commonly victimizes women in all spheres. Voices against such cliches have been raised but when it comes to science, the matter does not find enough space to express boldly. Though gender-based discrimination in scientific fields persisted since ages, yet the topic remained recessive and very little had been spoken of it.

The national Academis’ report confirms that women are still expected to remain in subordinate roles in science and are sexualized in the workplace. Even a few decades back, women in engineering and technological career were considered less feminine. The ones who dared to break free from the shackles of such stereotype were often undermined by the patricentric mind-set. The report solidifies what so many of us have long known: that promoting women in science doesn’t just mean getting more women into science. It means changing the long-standing sexist culture within science and the rest of the society as well.

The study of gender-based discrimination in scientific grounds has been thoroughly studied and the plausible and convincing term has been coined for presenting the dystopian scenario – The Matilda effect.

Matilda Joslyn Gage (March 24,1826 – March18,1898) was a 19th-century women’s suffragist, an aboriginal American rights activist, an abolitionist, a freethinker, and a prolific author, who was “born with a hatred of oppression.” She was a tireless worker and public speaker, and contributed numerous articles to the press, being regarded as “one of the most logical, fearless and scientific writers of her day”. In 1993, scientific historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term “Matilda effect”, after Matilda Gage, to identify the social situation where woman scientists inaccurately receive less credit for their scientific work than an objective examination of their actual effort would reveal.

Matilda Joslyn Gage

Gage, in one of her essays, wrote that” even the United States census” failed “to enumerate her among the inventors of the country.” Such assertions, Gage proceeded to demonstrate, “are carelessly or ignorantly made… although woman’s scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.” History of science is replete with the caterwauling of the Matilda Effect. Let us have a look at some of them to support the argument.

Nettie Stevens (1861–1912), greatly influenced the scientific community’s transition to this new line of inquiry: chromosomal sex determination. However, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a distinguished geneticist at the time, is generally credited with this discovery. Despite her extensive work in the field of genetics, Stevens’ contributions to Morgan’s work are often disregarded.

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) – Harvard University discovered that stimuli that were paired with other vivid stimuli would be recalled more easily. She also discovered that the duration of exposure led to the better recall. These findings, along with her paired-associations method, were later used by Georg Elias Müller and Edward B.Titchener, without any credit being given to Calkins.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–58)- now recognized as an important contributor to the 1953 discovery of DNA structure. At the time of the discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson, for which the two men received a 1962 Nobel Prize, her work was not properly credited (though Watson described the crucial importance of her contribution, in his 1968 book The Double Helix).

All the evidence cited above clearly claims the existence of gender discrimination in the field of scientific research. If we try to draw a resemblance of Matilda effect in present contexts, it can be justified even in today’s progressive world to some extent. Though the scenario was more prominent in history, yet there does exist a glass ceiling in some workplaces above which it is often very difficult to rise in the ranks. It is an essence to efface such norms rooted in the society which debarred someone from getting theirs due to the basis of their gender. When science is allowed to flourish voluntarily, only then the society can stride with a strenuous pace.

Ankita Boruah

Ankita Boruah is a final year BSc Chemistry student at Cotton University, Assam

Note : Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Afflatus, its staff, its contributors, or its partners.

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