Illustration from the book"La ciencia que se esconde en los saberes de las mujeres"
[11 February - International Day of Women and Girls in Science]
When I set out to write this blog post, someone suggested that I try the following thought experiment: Close your eyes and try to name five women scientists in less than ten seconds. Try it. How many did you come up with? If you couldn’t think of five names, don’t worry. Did you know that just 8% of the researchers mentioned in high school textbooks are women? In technology, the figure is even lower: 1%. But chances are that right now you’re using Wi-Fi, a technology based on a spread-spectrum transmission technique developed in the 1940s by Hedy Lamarr (although her role in this achievement was not recognised until 1997).
When I set out to write this blog post, someone suggested that I try the following thought experiment: Close your eyes and try to name five women scientists in less than ten seconds. Try it. How many did you come up with?
For many people, the first female scientist who comes to mind is Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. In fact, Curie is the only woman to have won more than one Nobel, and her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, is also a Nobel laureate. Only two women have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, five in Chemistry, and twelve in Physiology or Medicine. One of the most recent female Nobel laureates, Tu Youyou, was recognised for the discovery of artemisinin, an antimalaria drug.
Why do we have so much trouble naming female scientists? Despite limited access to education and the contempt of male colleagues in the scientific world, women have played a fundamental role in science. Some were self-taught; others studied under a male pseudonym. Many of those who did manage to get a good higher education suffered erasure at the hands of their colleagues, husbands and male relatives.
Despite limited access to education and the contempt of male colleagues in the scientific world, women have played a fundamental role in science
Such is the case of Rosalind Franklin, the chemist who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA—a key finding that helped James Watson and Francis Crick win the Nobel Prize in 1962 (and for which Franklin received no recognition whatsoever). Then there’s Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission—for which her male colleague received the Nobel Prize in 1944. And the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell, who discovered the first pulsar (a neutron star that emits regular pulses of radiation)—for which her thesis supervisor was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize. The list goes on and on...
Ilustration from the the book "La ciencia que se esconde en los saberes de las mujeres"
For this article, I was asked to answer the following question: Who inspired you to become a scientist? Although she’s not a scientist, the first woman who comes to mind is my grandmother. She always used to talk about how her teacher begged her mother—my great-grandmother—to let my grandmother continue her studies. But it was not to be. Haunted by this unfulfilled dream, my grandmother constantly insisted that her five granddaughters must become scientists.
Haunted by this unfulfilled dream, my grandmother constantly insisted that her five granddaughters must become scientists
The next women who inspired me were Maribel Gegúndez Cámara and Consuelo Giménez Pardo, my professors of clinical microbiology and parasitology in health care. In our parasitology classes, I came to understand how important it was to fight against the diseases we had been studying for years, especially in terms of the impact these efforts can have on the poorest and most neglected communities.
I remember learning in these classes about two Spanish women researchers. One was Pilar Mateo, who fights against tropical vector-borne diseases, such as Chagas disease, by developing innovative everyday solutions like insecticide paint for the walls of homes in rural communities.
The other was Clara Menéndez, who has spent her career working to prevent and treat malaria in vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and babies, through the use of insecticide-treated nets and preventive treatment during pregnancy, among other approaches.
After completing the Master of Clinical Research at ISGlobal, where I met excellent female researchers working in the field of global health, I joined ISGlobal’s Maternal, Child and Reproductive Health Initiative, where most of the researchers are women. These colleagues—women like Azucena Bardají and Raquel González—were also a source of inspiration.
Illustration from the book "La ciencia que se esconde en los saberes de las mujeres"
Nowadays, I have many more female role models: women my age or even younger, fellow PhD grant recipients, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, etc., from various countries. All of these women have had to overcome multiple barriers and professional challenges to get where they are today.
The past matters. It is important to recognise it and do justice to it. A few weeks ago, at a Women’s March Barcelona event, I had the chance to meet and hear a talk by Carme Font, a philologist who was recently awarded a €1.5 million EU-funded grant to analyse women’s writing from the 15th to 17th centuries. After reading two texts by little-known authors, she explained that seeking out the work of such women in history and in literature allows us to learn about the past, to truly understand it, to hear these women’s voices and look to them for inspiration in our current struggles against the patriarchal system.
Seeking out the work of such women in history and in literature allows us to learn about the past, to truly understand it, to hear these women’s voices and look to them for inspiration in our current struggles against the patriarchal system
I want to end not on a negative note, but with a call to action. It is up to us to act and change the situation. We must recognise female researchers and highlight their role in human progress—and in science in particular—in order to create role models who will inspire the empowerment of the young girls who will become the chemists, physicists, astronauts and doctors of tomorrow.