The Matilda Effect on Women in STEM

For centuries, women have made game-changing accomplishments in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.  Unfortunately, many of these groundbreaking women did not receive credit for their work due to something called the Matilda Effect, a term first coined by abolitionist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.  

The Matilda Effect is a bias in which the accomplishments of a female scientist go unrecognized and are instead attributed to a male colleague. Countless women throughout history have been denied recognition due to the Matilda Effect. Though we can’t honor them all in one blog post, we want to give a few of these incredible women the recognition they deserve. We hope that learning about the brilliant work of these women will inspire young girls interested in STEM careers to keep working towards their goals. 

Without further ado, here are three inspiring female scientists whose discoveries changed the world but who went unrecognized due to the Matilda Effect.

  1. Lise Meitner and the Discovery of Nuclear Fission

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was a physicist who first began conducting mathematical and scientific research at age eight.  In 1901, she attended the University of Vienna, becoming the second woman to earn a doctoral degree in Physics through the institution.  She soon became interested in radioactivity, making observations of alpha particles that would lead to the prediction of the nuclear atom.  She went on to work with chemist Otto Hahn for 30 years studying beta decay, nuclear isomerism, and discovering the element protactinium.  Eventually, the pair, along with Fritz Strassman, conducted experiments proving the existence of nuclear fission.  However, despite Meitner’s involved role in the process, the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Hahn instead of her.  

2. Rosalind Franklin and the Double-Helix

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was a chemist and X-ray crystallographer who helped us better understand the structure of DNA molecules, though she also explored viruses, graphite, and coal in her work. After serving as a World War II air raid warden, she obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge in 1945.  In 1947, she worked alongside Jacques Mering in studying X-ray diffraction technology, eventually applying these methods to her studies of DNA.  She went on to discover the density and helical formation of DNA molecules, prompting scientists to discover its double-helix structure.  However, the publication of this structure in 1953 did not mention Franklin’s name.

3. Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Discovery of Radio Pulsars

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-present) is an astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars—short bursts of emission caused by radiation from neutron stars.  Burnell earned her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Cambridge in 1969.  She studied quasars during her time in college, and it was through this research that she discovered of the pulses of a neutron star.  With the help of her advisor, Antony Hewish, her findings were confirmed.  However, the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize for Physics was not awarded to Burnell, but Hewish and Martin Ryle. Burnell went on to serve as a professor, tutor, and examiner at several universities. She is currently the Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

Meitner, Franklin, and Burnell’s work made enormous strides in scientific discovery, despite their unjust lack of recognition at the time. Though sexism in STEM fields has not been eradicated, thankfully women today are more properly recognized for their work as they continue to make discoveries that propel science forward. 

Our Museum educators recently had the pleasure of sitting down with six amazing female engineers making a difference with their work in fields ranging from mechanical to software to aerospace engineering. These engineers described their career journeys, what their work entails, and what they love about it. We hope the conversations will inspire young girls to continue learning about and engaging with STEM, and possibly pursuing a STEM career in which their hard work will not go unrecognized. You can watch these conversations here. 

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