It’s Ada Lovelace Day, on which we’re encouraged to blog about women in science and technology. Having been a woman in chemistry and biology, I’ve never felt out of place at all. My undergrad chemistry department was almost 50% female, and in 1998 I was one of five girls on a seven-person chemistry student executive board. (Incidentally, the initials of the five girls were H, A, R, E, and M.) I know you’re going to say that it’s different for students, and that the number of female chemists drops after PhD level. Maybe that’s true in chemistry, still, but the tides are most certainly turning in areas of biology.
Yesterday I was updating a list of contacts at work, and discovered that more than half of the developmental biology societies that are currently active in different countries are chaired by women. To be the chair or president of the developmental biology society in your country, you have to be active and respected in your field, and in the UK, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, France, Portugal, and Australia/NZ this position is now held by a woman.
“Oh, sure”, you mutter, “but that’s biology. You don’t know what it’s like in engineering/physics/math”.
However male-dominated some fields may still be today, I think it’s worth looking at how far other fields have come. Even though biology is doing quite well now, it wasn’t always as accessible to women.
In 1897 George Massee presented a paper to the Linnean Society, called “Germination of the Spores of the Agraricinae“. He hadn’t written the paper himself, but the author was not allowed to present it in person, because she was female, and women were not allowed at society meetings at that time. The paper was withdrawn, meaning it wouldn’t be published unless significant changes were made. The author? Beatrix Potter, whom you may know better as the illustrator of Peter Rabbit.
Whether it really was a result of not being able to attend meetings in person (making it harder to explain the work to the society than it would have been for a male author) or a case of too many revisions to be worth spending all her spare time on isn’t known, but it is certainly likely that if she had lived a century later, Beatrix Potter would have been better supported in her career as a scientist. As it is, she didn’t finish all the required experiments to resubmit her paper, and instead gained more and more acclaim as a children’s book author and illustrator.
Beatrix Potter could draw scientifically accurate lichens as well as fluffy bunnies, but it was the latter that was more acceptable for women a century ago. Today, she would have been encouraged to study, to submit papers, attend meetings.
Some fields are perhaps further behind than biology, or maybe there aren’t as many women trying to get in, like Potter did in botany, but even the most male-dominated fields let women attend their meetings these days, so nobody has to revert to becoming a famous illustrator as a backup plan.
Potter was also the first person to ever patent a character for distribution as a toy. And now the Peter Rabbit images are all copyrighted and I can’t show them here, but above’s a picture of a young Beatrix Potter holding a dog.