Women and science: the “Matilda effect” and some examples of gender discrimination in STEM

L’Matilda effect it is the phenomenon in which the results obtained by a woman are attributed entirely or in part to a man and which affects various fields of knowledge, including that of STEM disciplines. In this article we bring you some significant examples that occurred in the twentieth century, first of all the emblematic one of biochemistry Rosalind Franklin.

What is the Matilda effect and why is it called that

The phenomenon known as Matilda effect it’s a gender discriminatory practice which has as its main object women in the scientific community. It is a phenomenon that has very ancient origins but was described for the first time only in 1870 by the American writer and activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, to which it owes its name. Far from having been resolved, it still persists and affects social and ethnic minorities.

Rosalind Franklin and the structure of DNA

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Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 in the United Kingdom, in London. From a very young age he showed a strong aptitude for Science, distinguishing himself for his abilities in the academic field. He studied Physics and Chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge, where he became particularly interested in crystallography, the discipline that investigates the intimate structure of matter. After obtaining her PhD in 1945, Franklin first worked at Cambridge, dedicating herself to the structure of carbohydrates and later, in 1951, she moved as a researcher to King’s College Londonwhere he began studying the DNA structure.

It was in the laboratories of King’s College that Franklin used the diffraction technique X-ray to obtain high-quality images of DNA fibers and in 1952 obtained an image known as Photograph 51which provided fundamental evidence in favor of the double helix structure of DNA.

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Unfortunately, however, the photograph was shown without the scientist’s permission James Watson And Francis Crick, respectively a young biologist and a physicist working in the Department of Physics at Cambridge. The two used the image as the basis for their research, theorizing the double helix structure of DNA in the 1953 and publishing their work in the journal Nature which won the Nobel Prize nine years later.

Despite the essential nature of her contribution, Rosalind Franklin was not even mentioned in the two scientists’ publication. In 1962, when James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague at King’s College, received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, Franklin’s contribution was officially recognized. Having shed light on the matter, today Rosalind Franklin is widely celebrated as one of the most influential scientists of the twentieth century.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and the composition of the Sun

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A similar affair involved London astrophysics Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkinthe first woman to obtain a doctorate in astronomy at Harvard in 1925 and to direct an entire department there since 1956. At just 25 years old, Payne-Gaposchkin, following a study that would revolutionize knowledge of the universe, wrote a thesis in which she stated That the Sun is composed mainly of hydrogen.

At the time it was believed that, like the Earth’s core, the Sun was made primarily of iron. In accordance with this theoretical line, the astronomer Henry Norris Russell he ruled that Payne-Gaposchkin’s results were wrong, only to publish them himself a few years later, taking much of the credit for the discovery.

Lise Meitner and nuclear fission

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Austrian physics Lise Meitnerstudent of Max Planck and the first woman to have a professorship in Physics in 1919 in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, she worked profitably for several years on the study of radioactivity together with her colleague Otto Hahn.

In 1934 Enrico Fermi and his collaborators announced that they had produced elements heavier than uranium by bombarding the atoms of this element with neutrons. Meitner and Hahn decided to get to work immediately to verify the experiments and produce transuranic elements in their laboratory. However, the two managed to divide the uranium atoms into lighter atoms, without understanding at first what meaning this result had.

In the 1938 Lise Meitner suffered the consequences of Hitler’s racial laws and had to leave Germany because she was of Jewish origin. Her experiments were continued by Hahn, who observed that bombarding uranium produced barium atoms. Not knowing how to interpret the evidence from those experiments, Hahn sent them to Meitner who in the meantime found employment at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm to interpret them. Through a series of calculations, Meitner discovered that by bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons, they broke down into lighter atoms, releasing a large amount of energy. That’s when she discovered nuclear fission.

The two independently wrote two articles to be published in scientific journals with the description of the discovery but it was exclusively their colleague Otto Hahn who received, in 1944the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, without mentioning his colleague during the award ceremony.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the discovery of pulsars

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In the 1967 British astrophysics Jocelyn Bell Burnell he discovered – during his PhD – the first pulsarone of the astronomical manifestations of neutron stars. The article announcing the discovery had 5 authors. Since in the academic field, very often, the first name to appear in the publication is that of the supervisor of the experimental project, the credit for the discovery was attributed to them and not to Bell, who wrote the thesis project and completed it. They were therefore his supervisor Anthony Hewish and colleague Martin Ryle to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 for this discovery.

Nettie Stevens and the sex chromosomes

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In the 1905the American biologist and geneticist Nettie Stevens demonstrated that the sex of an organism is determined starting from its chromosomes, based on the identification of the Y chromosome in the Tenebrio molitor, a flour beetle. The studies, which were initially conducted on Drosophila melanogasterthe common fruit fly, inspired Thomas Hunt Morganwho continued them on this species after Stevens’ death in 1912. In 1933, Morgan obtained the Nobel Prize, while the scientist’s work did not obtain the recognition it deserved until 1994, when she was included in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.