7 Reasons Why Women Are Invisible in Science

Most know of the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. We also know it was built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal. But how many know of her Aunt Nor who invented the device that performed attar distillation of flowers to make perfumes?

Despite thousands years of contributions, many are unaware of pioneering women like the two ancient Egyptian female doctors Merit Ptah and Peseshet who are considered to be the first female doctors in human history.

Another famous example is Hypatia (ca. 370-415), the Ancient Greek/Egyptian philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in Alexandria, in north Egypt.

The Islamic history is also rich with examples of female Muslim scientists who excelled in several scientific fields like, Lubna of Cordoba (d. 984) who was a skilled mathematician and presided over the royal library, and she was proficient in other sciences as well.

Fatima Al-Majritiya, the daughter of Maslama Al-Majriti (d. 1008 or 1007 CE), was a great female Muslim astronomer of medieval Andalus and a renowned Astrolabes manufacturer.

The Muslim female scholar Sutayta Al-Mahāmali of Baghdad excelled in mathematics as well as in other scientific fields. It is said that she was an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics which were well developed in her time.

It’s said also that she invented solutions to equations which have been cited by other mathematicians, which denote aptitude in algebra. Although these equations were few, they demonstrated that her skills in mathematics went beyond a simple aptitude to perform calculations.

The title of the first nurse of Islam is credited to Rufayda Bint Saad Al Aslamiyya. But names of other women too were recorded as nurses and practitioners of medicine in early Islam: Nusayba Bint Kaab Al-Mazeneya, one of the Muslim women who provided nursing services to warriors at the battle of Uhud (625 H), Umm Sinan Al-Islami (known also as Umm Imara), who became a Muslim and asked permission of the Prophet Muhammad to go out with the warriors to nurse the injured and provide water to the thirsty, Umm Matawe’ Al-Aslamiyya, who volunteered to be a nurse in the army after the opening of Khaybar, Umm Waraqa Bint Hareth, who participated in gathering the Qur’an and providing her nursing services to the warriors at the battle of Badr.Female scientist

Moreover, other women like Empress Shi Dun of China was known for inventing paper, while Catherine Green invented cotton gin, the patent of which is actually held by Eli Whitney.

Florence Nightingale is known as a famous nurse, but she was also a brilliant mathematician. Her contribution to statistics as the inventor of the pie chart used by businesses, technologists, researchers and governments throughout the world today is virtually unknown.

This continues even in the ‘Information Age,’ where we boast of living in knowledge-based societies. It took fifty years for Rosalind Franklin’s outstanding contribution to understanding the helical structure of the DNA to be even acknowledged.

The X-rays she used to discover the secret of life (DNA) probably killed her due to the lack of adequate protection from the radiation in the lab that made her contract cancer and die at the young age of 37.

How many of us know of contemporary women like Helen Greiner, the president of the largest robot company in the world, or of Vanitha Rangaraju, the only Indian woman to win an Oscar for her technical work?

After research and interviewing several women and men in the fields of education, business and technology, I found there are seven primary reasons why women in technology continue to remain invisible – Social Myths, Conditioning, Media, Deterrence, Balance, Networking and Marketing.

Social Myths

The patriarchal system has always defined the place and role of a woman leading to the perpetuation of the following myths:

  • Women are emotional; technology is strictly logical. They don’t go together.
  • Men are good at math and machines; women have no clue.
  • Men are providers; women, nurturers.
  • Technical women are unattractive, arrogant and abnormal.
  • Women can’t do it because they are made that way – the divine/evolution argument.

Research exploring these myths is collecting dust in various organizations worldwide.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, in “Myths of Gender” describes studies analyzing adult brain differences concluding that verbal ability, visual spatial perception and math ability have nothing to do with gender.

However, many males accept the myths readily. Njin-Tsoe Chen, project leader in the Dutch company Schuitema, observes, “To some extent it’s society, but evolution also plays a role. Men and women are different.”

A survey conducted by AltaVista found the men-are-better-in-technology myth thriving on the Internet: 80 percent of men claimed they are better surfers than their female partners.

When a woman shatters these myths and succeeds in the technical field, she is labeled a honchess, bitch, feminist or said to have slept her way through to the top.

Instead of being accepted for their accomplishments, successful women are questioned as to how they became successful.

Conditioning

Social myths perpetuate stereotypes that lead to conditioning. Society pressures women to look and behave in certain ways.

Kate Millet, writer and educator, said, “Many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning.”

It starts early when parenting is done using stereotypes: girls like dolls, boys like cars.

“Looking through thousands of photographs weekly, women are depicted 95% of the time as ‘beginners’ with males standing behind them, pointing at the computer screen as if to say, ‘Okay, now you click here.’ It’s indicative of male mentality that women don’t get it,” says Diana Bouchard, graphic artist, Canada.

Young girls see this and assume technology is not for them. There’s much discussion about the social impact of the media’s depiction of women’s bodies, but almost none about the media’s impact on her career and educational aspirations.

In an Internet survey I conducted in August 2002 on Systers, the Global Network for Women in IT, over 2,557 women working in technical fields were polled from Europe, North America and Australia.

56% of the women stated that they had never been able to wear a skirt to any event of a job that they retained as a tech industry peer as they were afraid of being perceived as unprofessional.

70% said using plain glasses, little or no make-up and a tight hair bun help them if they want their work to be taken seriously especially during job interviews.

Media

By not covering successful women in technology, the media denies the next generation role models. Flip through any popular technical magazine and you’ll rarely find an article written by or about a woman. Why?

David Ball, editor of Packet Magazine says, “Out of my top five freelance writers, four are women. While our writers get bylines, in many cases the byline goes to the content expert interviewed for the story. There appears to be more male engineers and technical product managers than female.”

Regarding the dearth of articles about women, Don Davis, editor of Card Technology Magazine comments, “The majority of the executives in the industry we primarily cover are men. Thus, most of the knowledgeable sources are men. As for the audience, I’m sure it’s mostly male.”

Editors justify lack of coverage saying their readers assumed to be male wouldn’t be interested in women in technology.

It is left to women’s magazines to cover—a vicious cycle as the typical woman’s magazine covers what are considered as “women” subjects: fashion, beauty and family.

“There should be a proper regulatory framework to ensure that the broadcasters’ air programmes on successful women in technology. The regulators should ensure that broadcasters comply,” says Emily Khamula, Broadcasting Officer in Malawi, Africa.

Dr. Rodney Brooks of MIT disagrees. “See the Forbes article on iRobot featuring Helen Greiner and the movie ‘Me & Isaac Newton’ featuring student Maja Mataric. Or the press coverage for Cynthia Brezeal -Time Magazine featured a multi-page story plus myriad TV appearances. None of my former male students have done as well in the press as these three.”

Mass media coverage of Brooks’ three former students who specialized in robotics can be explained. Robotics is still considered a maverick field for women.

Unfortunately, only ‘displayable’ aggressiveness fetches coverage though most technical women tend to be internally aggressive because of their jobs.

A good example would be Rosalind Franklin – the lady whose X-ray pictures were fundamental for understanding the DNA structure but whose contribution is being recognized fifty years after her death.

NetworkingFemale scientist

Lack of networking plays an enormous role in rendering women in technology invisible. Two factors remain as major obstacles to networking.

  • The Old Boys’ network.
  • Male colleagues’ wives or girlfriends.

Often, professional success requires networking with male colleagues outside of office hours. For women, this isn’t always easy.

“I find networking to be a major problem. I cannot have the same informal ‘outside work’ relationship with my peers and senior executives that my male ‘competitors’ could have without spouses being concerned and some people’s tongues wagging,” says a senior manager at Intel.

Deterrence

Deterrence occurs in two places: school and home. In developed countries, young women are actively discouraged by their teachers or guidance counselors from pursuing engineering.

According to a study done by the National Science Foundation for Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering in the USA in 2000, 34 percent of girls reported being advised against taking math in their senior year of high school.

In many developing countries, parents refuse to invest in a girl’s technical education. Hadeel Treiki, researcher in Malta, says, “Though Arab perceptions are changing, opportunities for women to enter technical fields are far less than men, e.g., parents would like to spend money on their boy child than girl as he is supposed to help them when they are old.”

Balance

Working hours and social setup for jobs in technical fields demand different commitments directly affecting the socially defined role of the woman as nurturer.

Shazia Harris, a researcher in education, Pakistan, says, “My research indicates females will opt for fulltime jobs if the option is available even after marriage and even after having children, which was one of the major factors for losing professional female workforce, i.e., home responsibilities before career.”

Many women feel a lack of balance in their lives and this leads to guilt. Women have to give up something, because in dual-income families, women still do most of the “homework.”

This is not just about gender but also about money. The widest wage gap is between parents.

Fathers simply make a lot more than mothers do because men are simply paid more in the corporate world even if men and women hold the same jobs.

In California law, pregnancy itself is considered a disability with a note from your doctor.

Marketing

In her book, ‘ What’s Holding You Back? ‘, Linda Austin says men tend to over-represent their abilities by 30-40 per cent while women under-represent theirs by the same amount.

This works to a 60 to 80 percent gap between what a man and a woman with similar qualifications claim for themselves.

Though social perceptions are slowly changing, women in the technical workplace remain behind the scenes because they tend to underplay their contributions.

This is because “feminism” has become a bad word in today’s society. Many technical women are scared of being labeled “feminist.” They would rather ‘dumb down’ than take credit for their work.

The biggest barrier according to many technical women is that they often have to be more manlike than men. Marketing themselves as ‘women’ is generally ridiculed.

Conclusion

American author/poet, Dorothy Parker, said, “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.” Why not create a new one?

We could begin by asking the same questions members of the civil rights movement did.

The issue of invisibility of women in technology is hovering between intent and execution. Industry leaders wish the issue would simply disappear instead of addressing it. Here, government advocacy and media can play an enormous role.

Technical workplaces need to change to allow fair competition for jobs and advancement for women whose strategies differ from the norm.

If the norm involves weekend ‘beer busts’, it’s not the female employee who needs to ‘loosen up’ but the employer who needs to identify appropriate venues for company meetings.

Femininity, the socially enforced model of female behavior, needs to be examined. One needs to teach our society to embrace diversity, to allow girls to be ‘technically’ ambitious without labeling them ‘tomboys’ and to allow boys to be sensitive without branding them ‘sissies’.

Generalizations based on myths shouldn’t be assumed of any man, or used to discriminate against any woman.

While ignoring the contributions of an individual is bad, ignoring the contributions of a minority is appalling; ignoring the potential contributions of half the population is just plain stupid.

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