Women's Contribution to Medicine and Science

Women have contributed so much to science (including medicine), technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Their innovations have expanded our knowledge, propelled us forward, and given hope to future generations of women by showing their perseverance and breaking barriers. You can’t help but ask, “If they didn’t do it, would someone else have anyway?” I’m not sure, to be honest, but their unique perspective led them to discoveries that no one had reached before, so maybe not.

Can you imagine how different our world would be, how much more advanced if women had been treated as equals and their voices heard from the very beginning?

This is such an important topic for me, not just because of my own experiences in the workplace or because I have a daughter, but because I have sons. It’s important to me that my sons grow up to be respectful of everyone regardless of background, gender, or ability.

Alice Augusta Ball
Alice Augusta Ball developed the first successful treatment for leprosy before dying at just 24 years old.
[Photo: GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall]

How and Why Were Women Kept Out?

Gender bias is one of the biggest reasons women were kept out of certain fields of study. There was an overwhelming thought that women were incapable of being as intelligent as men.

Early on, there was “evidence” given by men that women’s brains were smaller and hips were bigger, therefore, they were not meant to think, they were meant to bear children. Oh, and also that when women were pregnant, their brains shrunk, so again, obviously it means they’re only meant to bear children. What?!

Unfortunately, as men continued to perpetuate this way of thinking, it rubbed off on women, parents, and society as a whole.

Microaggressions in the workplace are another key reason for the lack of female presence in these fields. They are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” says Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. in his Psychology Today post: Microaggressions in Everyday Life.

With microaggressions present in everyday life, it’s no wonder that even when women do break into these fields, they are inevitably “pushed out” because of the hostile environment.

Cultural biases also kept women from these fields for so long. Masculine traits tend to be associated with STEM. Traits like assertiveness, ambition, and confidence. Of course, we know that women have all of these traits as well, but culturally, we unintentionally see them as applying to men. A study (Linda. L Carli et al.) was done that asked participants about the qualities of men, women, and scientists. More of the traits they listed overlapped with men and scientists much more than women. Even more jaw-dropping (not surprising, but still), non-scientists weren’t as likely to believe a woman was a scientist if she had a more feminine appearance.

The worst part is that it’s ingrained in our society. As I said, we know that women have “masculine” traits too but as we grow up, women are steered away from those, there’s a societal expectation to be “feminine”. Unfortunately, the women who lean into these traits often receive backlash for going against the norm. They’re labeled as aggressive, cold, or bitchy.

Arguably one of the worst issues that kept and continue to keep women out of not just STEM but many fields is sexual harassment.

There are different forms of it, from inappropriate comments regarding appearance, to unwanted advancements, and coercion. These present themselves in different ways and at different stages in these fields. And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that STEM workplaces are far from the only place sexual harassment exists.

How Women Were Able to Break Through Barriers

The brave women that made such an impact in these fields have similar traits that allowed them to persevere. They ignored those societal “norms” and the assumptions that they weren’t as smart. Each one met challenges and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Some of my favorites:

  • Katherine Graham who became the CEO of the Washington Post after her husband died. Even while under pressure from the Nixon administration, she published the Pentagon Papers because she knew that the public needed to know the truth. She put society and truth above herself.
  • Susan B. Anthony who was arrested for voting when women didn’t yet have the right. Even after, she still lobbied Congress and gathered signatures for petitions.
  • Bessie Coleman who was the first black female pilot. It was basically impossible for women in the U.S. to get a pilot’s license so she went to France. She got her international pilot's license and came back to the U.S. a year later and flew all over!
Bessie Coleman, Curtiss Field, L.I. 1922
Bessie Coleman, Curtiss Field, L.I. 1922
[Photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

These women ignored the word no, instead finding other ways to continue to make a difference.

Women also broke these barriers by refusing to be “pushed out”. Regardless of the unwelcoming culture. They weren’t given the accolades, credit, or compensation that men received. Many women left. What was the point of staying and working so hard when you were dismissed, unheard, and your ideas stolen? I can’t blame them, can you? But it does make the women who stayed that much more admirable.

Who Were Some of the Most Notable Women of Their Time?

There are many women throughout history who made remarkable strides. There have been trailblazers for generations. Some we know, but some are less so. Here’s a quick list of some of the most notable in STEM.

  • Marie Curie - The first woman awarded the Nobel Prize and only woman to be awarded it twice, in two different fields, physics and chemistry.
  • Donna Theo Strickland - The third woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics for her work with pulsed lasers. Her work contributed to many fields including corrective eye surgery.
  • Alice Augusta Ball - A chemist who developed the treatment for leprosy. At 23 years old might I add?
  • Rosalind Franklin - A chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose discoveries helped us understand the structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Although not originally credited for it, her X-ray pictures led to the discovery of the double helix structure.
  • Hedy Lemarr - It took a long time for Hedy to get the credit she deserved, most saw her as “just an actress”. She invented frequency hopping which eventually helped the military with secret radio messages. This technology was later used to develop Bluetooth and WiFi.
Hedy Lamarr: Frequency Hopping Patent
Hedy Lamarr: Frequency Hopping Patent
[Photo: National Inventors Hall of Fame]

Has gender disparity and recognition changed?

The gender gap has gotten better, there’s no doubt. Yet, can’t we do even better?! There’s still a large gap in both representation and pay. According to recent statistics, women make up 48% of the overall workforce but only account for 28% of STEM workers. But why, after all this time?

As you can see from the above statistic, yes, the physical presence of women is fairly low. However, there is still citation bias that keeps the women that are actually in the field from being recognized for their contributions. Men cite each other more than they cite women for their work. Probably (hopefully) unintentionally. But we can’t blame it all on the men. People with little to no expertise in a particular field will cite a man in that field before a woman. This is because of our gender bias, the men have more status.

There is still a lot of unconscious bias present too. Due to long-standing beliefs that women aren’t as capable as men. These biases rear their ugly heads in decisions regarding hiring, funding grants, and promotions which tip the scale toward men, inevitably widening the gap.

And in another “goes without saying” moment (but again, I will anyway), our unconscious biases can also affect our actions toward men, not just women, and of course trans and non-binary members of our society too. This is not just a man vs. woman problem, our unconscious bias is an everybody problem.

Why is it important to close the gap and how can it be done?

One of the largest reasons the gap must be closed and one that is so shocking to me is that research is inherently flawed. Test subjects are almost all male. This means that any “solution” found through research only applies to one segment of our population.

The test subjects are not only predominantly male but the researchers themselves are too. This leads to a sole perspective, the male perspective that is used to advance society, yet we are not a male-only society. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is a field that is predominantly male. Isn’t it obvious that unintended gender biases will be built directly into these structures that are meant to benefit us all?

Assuming you agreed with me there, doesn’t it also make sense that there should be a representation of our entire society in order for us to advance in a way that benefits all of society?!

The fastest way toward gender equity starts with the disruption of systemic issues. By making these fields more inclusive, addressing unconscious biases, and providing mentoring. This would help girls not only enter the STEM workforce but give them the ability to make it a lasting career. As structural issues are addressed, there needs to be more encouragement for girls and young women to pursue STEM fields. As more women enter the workforce, role models will be more visible, giving girls a goal to strive for - and surpass.

Marie Curie in her laboratory, 1925
Marie Curie in her laboratory, 1925
[Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Regardless of barriers, the contribution of women to science (including medicine), technology, engineering, and math has been invaluable. From Marie Curie in physics, laying the groundwork for modern medical imaging like X-rays, to Hedy Lemarr in technology whose invention led to Bluetooth and WiFi, things we now take for granted. As well as other women, in all sorts of fields of study. We can look at these women as heroes for breaking boundaries and paving the way. But let’s also use them as inspiration to make changes that will make these struggles a thing of the past, talking only in “remember when”. Not only for women and girls today but for the future of society as a whole!