As a woman in science who has experienced significant success along with a few obvious gender-specific barriers during my career, I try hard not to view my professional world through the lens of gender bias. However, in honor of International Women’s Day today and Equal Pay Day approaching, it seems timely to write about an important issue in science, which is how women scientists’ contributions can be overlooked or mis-attributed to their male colleagues. This phenomenon is known to social scientists as the “Matilda Effect.”
Scientists have done plenty of research demonstrating the range of problems caused by implicit bias against women in science. (Remember, the implicit part of implicit bias refers to the fact that the bias is not conscious or deliberate.) For example, we know that both men and women editors are more likely to give positive peer reviews on scientific articles where men are the lead authors.1 Similarly, both men and women grant reviewers are more likely to give male applicants higher scores,2 and both men and women managers are more likely to hire male scientists (and pay them higher salaries).3
Although I am aware of these problems, I generally don’t want to spend a lot of energy looking for examples of these types of biases in my own life. It’s not that they don’t make me mad – they do. But perhaps naively, and perhaps because I happen to work with a lot of progressive, thoughtful people, I hope that my focus on doing good science will make me immune to the impacts of bias. Recently, though, a book I’ve been reading with my 5-year-old daughter inspired me to think a little more about the Matilda Effect and how it is detrimental to the scientific community at large.
The book I’m reading with my little girl is called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It was written by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, with beautiful illustrations by more than 60 women artists, and funded through a successful crowdfunding campaign. The book includes 100 single-page stories about different women, including several scientists. The profile of Marie Curie explains, in simple language, how she was originally not going to be included in at least one of the two Nobel Prize citations that she deservedly won. This was the story that got me thinking about how often the accomplishments of women scientists have been overlooked, how the phenomenon is still a problem for the scientific community today, and possible ways we can work to fight against it.
The “Matilda Effect” is a term coined by Prof. Margaret W. Rossiter, named after the 19th century author and activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, who observed and experienced the phenomenon herself.4 There are some famous historical examples where the Matilda Effect was at work, including the near miss for Marie Curie mentioned above. Another you might have heard of is Rosalind Franklin’s often-overlooked role in discovering the structure of DNA (her male colleagues Watson and Crick are much more famous).5 You might not have heard of Lise Meitner, who was not awarded the the 1944 Nobel Prize for chemistry along with her male colleague for their foundational work in nuclear fission.6 Nettie Stevens was a pioneering geneticist who discovered the chromosomal determinants of an organism’s sex, but a man who described the same concepts later was awarded the Nobel Prize instead.7 And Marthe Gautier discovered the chromosomal source of Downs Syndrome, but a male colleague was given sole credit for many years.8
These are just a few among many other cases, both known and unknown. There are contemporary studies showing that the Matilda Effect is still alive and well, if usually (not always) more subtle than it was in past decades. Some common contemporary manifestations include the disproportionately small number of (1) award nominations and wins by women scientists,9 (2) citations of studies by women scientists,10 and (3) collaboration opportunities, especially in some more “male-associated” fields.11
One can argue that underrecognizing women scientists is wrong from a simple fairness standpoint and should be actively remedied for that reason alone. But even if that reason is not compelling on its own, we must also consider the loss in scientific advances that likely comes when our loudest scientific voices and most visible scientists represent only half our population. We know that better science happens when diverse voices are part of the process.12
There is only limited published research about how to mitigate gender bias in science,13 and none that I could find specifically about the Matilda Effect. But I do have some thoughts about how we can start to address this problem:
- First, we should work harder to normalize the concept of women scientists, including efforts to increase representation of women among practicing scientists. (A discussion of how to go about this could be its own blog post, and in fact has been the subject of plenty of research in itself.)
- Second, men and women alike should actively try to come up with women candidates for awards, collaborations, or leadership positions.
- Third, editors of scientific journals should examine the data regarding how the gender breakdown of papers submitted to their journal compares to papers published, and make their staff aware of working to overcome bias on this front.
- Fourth, women scientists should actively pursue publicity for their work and mentors of women scientists should also push them to pursue these opportunities.
- Fifth, academic leaders should think about explicit criteria for determining authorship, teach their mentees about these criteria, and then follow these criteria based on careful consideration of actual contributions to the studies done.
While the actions in this list are focused on better recognizing women scientists, they could just as easily be applied to other underrepresented groups and, in all likelihood, are even more necessary in cases of intersectionality (i.e. a scientist who is a woman of color). I’m sure there are more actions that would help insure fair crediting of scientific accomplishment – I’d love to hear what our readers come up with on this front. In any case, it shouldn’t take a “rebel girl” to get credit for the work that she’s done.
- Arizona State University lesson plan: Women in Science (grades 5-12)
- PBS NewsHour lesson plans: How outstanding women in STEM fields overcame obstacles (grades 9-12)
- Salamon-Abrams, R. Women on the March: A Lesson Plan on Imagining the Future of Feminism. New York Times, March 8, 2017.
- Budden, A. et al. Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 2008, 23(1), 4–6. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.008
- Bornmann, L. et al. Gender differences in grant peer review: A meta-analysis. Journal of Informetrics, 2007, 1(3) 226–238. doi: 10.1016/j.joi.2007.03.001
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012, 109(41), 16474–16479. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109
- Rossiter, M. The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science. Social Studies of Science, 1993, 23(2), 325-341. doi: 10.1177/030631293023002004
- Cobb, M. Sexism in science: did Watson and Crick really steal Rosalind Franklin’s data? 2015, The Guardian, retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/sexism-in-science-did-watson-and-crick-really-steal-rosalind-franklins-data
- Crawford, E. et al. A Nobel Tale of Postwar Injustice Physics Today, 1997, 50(9), 26-27. doi: 10.1063/1.881933
- Lee, J. 6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism. National Geographic, 2013, retrieved from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science/
- Pain, E. After More Than 50 Years, a Dispute Over Down Syndrome Discovery. Science, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/02/after-more-50-years-dispute-over-down-syndrome-discovery
- Lincoln, A. et al. The Matilda Effect in science: Awards and prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s. Social Studies of Science, 2012, 42(2), 307-320. doi: 10.1177/0306312711435830
- Maliniak, D. et al. The Gender Citation Gap. APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper; American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2303311
- Zeng, X. et al. Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender. PLoS Biology, 2016, 14(11): e1002573. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002573
- Freeman, R. & Huang, W. Collaborating with People Like Me: Ethnic Coauthorship within the United States. Journal of Labor Economics, 2015, 33(S1), S289-S318.doi: 10.1086/678973
- Pietri, E. et al. Using Video to Increase Gender Bias Literacy Toward Women in Science. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2016, online ahead of print. doi: 10.1177/0361684316674721
Note: This post was edited on March 9, 2017 to update the second photo and the add the first sentence in the last paragraph, which had been accidentally omitted. The post was edited again on March 8, 2019 to correct a typo in the caption of the Marie Curie image, which had left out the word “two.”