Male racism against women scientists
Like the Frenchwoman Marthe Gautier, who has just died and whose crucial role in the discovery of Down syndrome was “forgotten”, many women scientists have seen their contribution to research minimized or even denied.
Marthe Gautier, an exceptional woman, demonstrated the presence of an extra chromosome in people with Down syndrome.
Despite Marthe Gautier’s work, this discovery was attributed to a man, Jérôme Lejeune, and her name, misspelled, was relegated to the second place of the signatories of the article confirming the results obtained by the French team in 1959.
Patience finally paid off because, in 1994, the ethics committee of Inserm recognized that in “the discovery of the supernumerary chromosome, Jérôme Lejeune’s part (…) is unlikely to have been preponderant”.
Many women have seen their role, however crucial in the progress of research, greatly minimized, when it was not denied outright.
Another woman who played an important role is Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist who first identified the double helix structure of DNA. In October 1962, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to three men for this discovery.
And then, the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell discovered in 1967 the first pulsar. But her observations earned her thesis director a Nobel Prize, without her name being associated with it.
This sidelining of the contribution of women scientists to research was theorized in the early 1990s by science historian Margaret Rossiter.
She actually expanded on the theory of sociologist Robert King Merton, according to which some great figures are recognized at the expense of their relatives who often participated in their research. A concept called the “Matthew effect”, in reference to a verse of the gospel.
The Englishwoman, Margaret Rossiter, notes that this effect is multiplied when it applies to women scientists. She calls this concept the “Matilda effect” in homage to the feminist activist Matilda Joslyn Gage who, at the end of the 19th century, denounced the invisibilization of women in science.
“In the 19th century, women in Europe were practically excluded from the world of science in the name of their so-called natural inferiority,” explains Louis-Pascal Jacquemond, a historian specializing in the history of women and science.
If they are sisters, mothers, wives or daughters of scientists, they can participate alongside them in the advances of the discipline but their role is minimized, like that of Albert Einstein’s wife, the physicist Mileva Marić.
Even Marie Curie sees her name almost systematically attached to that of her husband.
“The post-World War II policies of democratization of education reinforce the increase in the number of girls and women in science. However, their careers were hampered by a glass ceiling,” continued Jacquemond.
And “in the 21st century, high-level women scientists are still considered exceptional,” he laments.
“For a long time, the role of women was perceived as subaltern, auxiliary,” adds Sylvaine Turck-Chièze, a physicist and former president of the “Women and Science” association.
“The names of female doctoral students are no longer omitted from their work, but recognition takes time.
The names of women are in any case insufficiently cited in school textbooks, regrets Natalie Pigeard-Micault, historian specializing in the history of women in science and medicine. “This gives the impression that scientific research is limited to a handful of women.
The historian also notes that Marie Curie is always presented as “exceptional”, which suggests that a woman must “be a genius” to succeed in science.
It is to fight against these stereotypes that the association “Georgette Sand”, which aspires to better visibility of women in the public space, organizes many workshops in colleges and high schools on these issues.
“Today, women in scientific fields are very good students but they don’t have the energy, they are not taught to fight against invisibilization, to defend themselves when someone monopolizes their work”, says Ophélie Latil, founder of the association. It is necessary to know how to say: “No, it is my work”, she defends.