Invisible Women in Science: Overcoming the Challenges of Race and Gender
“I can’t believe I had to learn about these amazing and brilliant women from a movie! Why didn’t we learn about them in school?” lamented an African American friend and colleague. I felt the same way when I saw the movie Hidden Figures, a true story about the African American female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers who worked at NASA in the early days of the space program in the mid-twentieth century. They pushed against humiliations inside and outside their workplace, including racial segregation in their schools, dining rooms, bathrooms, and work spaces. They worked with lesser titles and large pay inequities to perform calculations of orbital trajectories and to solve engineering problems, making space travel possible.
Janna Levin, who reviewed the book by Margot Lee Shetterly from which the movie was made, cites Shetterly as saying, “Women . . . had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations” based on gender and race. Their contributions were largely unacknowledged.
Why are women’s contributions to science so invisible to most of us? Levin, who is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, also reviews Dava Sobel’s book about women astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory near the turn of the twentieth century. Another carefully researched true story, The Glass Universe tells the story of women astronomers hired and mentored by Edward Charles Pickering, director of the observatory from 1877 to 1919.
Pickering is credited with hiring these women and mentoring the first female PhDs in astronomy at Harvard. Nonetheless, he refused to pay them the equivalent of their male counterparts. Star protégée Williamina Fleming, a single mother, complained to him about her salary—$1,500 per year in contrast to $2,500 per year paid to the men—and he told her “that I received an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand. . . . Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?” Her complaints were ignored.
Levin notes that science profited from the women astronomers at the Harvard Observatory, but most of us have never heard their names—Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecelia Payne, and Antonia Maury are a few. Leavitt’s work, known as Leavitt’s Law, made Edwin Hubble’s development of his telescope possible. Hubble’s name is very familiar to me but not Leavitt’s.
The recent death of Dr. Vera Rubin brings another unacknowledged female scientist to our attention. Lisa Randall explains that Vera Rubin made one of the most important advances in physics in the twentieth century when she presented convincing evidence of dark matter. Rubin’s discovery well deserved the Nobel Prize, but her revolutionary insight was never officially acknowledged with a Nobel. Randall, herself a professor of physics at Harvard, explains that “the elephant in the room is gender. Dr. Rubin was not alone in having been overlooked for the Nobel.” Randall goes on to note that “of the 204 Nobel laureates in physics, only two have been women.”
Why don’t we learn about the accomplishments of women scientists? The history books don’t mention them, but we can make their names familiar to the people in our lives—our daughters and sons, our granddaughters and grandsons, our students. Let’s make a point of it!