Invisible Women: Where are our Female Role Models?

Arianne Weekes.

The recent death of Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016) has caused the inevitable, short lived stirring up of public opinion about women in science and the recognition they get, or lack, for their work. Vera Rubin noticed discrepancies in the speed of stars in galaxies compared to theory. This provided reliable evidence of ‘dark matter’, the theory that most of the matter we are aware of actually makes up a tiny portion of the universe.1 This is considered one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century; one that has gathered funding and still captures the interest of the public. She was awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomy Society in 19962; only the second they’ve awarded to a woman; however, she was never awarded a Nobel Prize which many believe she was entitled to.

During her life she encountered far worse than possibly being looked over for prizes, though. Once she had to speak to an eminent astrophysicist, George Gamow, in the lobby though she was invited by him for a meeting because women were not allowed upstairs in the offices. Even when she succeeded in gaining access to the 200 inch telescope in California where she made her most famous discovery she was faced with yet another reminder that Physics was not welcoming to her as they didn’t even have a women’s restroom.1

This could be understandable if Rubin was the first female Physicist but she is preceded by many examples of capable women. Although, many of them suffer from such obscurity that perhaps it isn’t so unbelievable that they were entirely forgotten. To see if the Physics community has improved we can first look back, did Vera Rubin have a better experience than those before her?

Caroline Hershel, who was born in 1750, had a fairly difficult start in life as her mother heavily limited the amount of education she received.3 Her education improved but was strongly influenced by her brother when she eventually she moved in with him. She said in her Memoir, “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, I did what he commanded me.”4 However, when her brother’s interest turned to astronomy she did become interested in it and enjoyed assisting him and carrying out her own observations. Her obituary states she “performed the whole of the arduous and important duties of his astronomical assistant” to such quality she was awarded a salary by the king – the first woman in England honoured with an official government position, and the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.5,6

She is known for the discovery of several comets and is even recorded as the first to discover five of them. She organised nebulae and star clusters by polar distance into what would become the New General Catalogue which was published under her brother’s name.  Even so, she received full or partial credit for her achievements and became the first women to be awarded with the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. She was also honoured by the King of Hanover and was the joint first woman to be named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.5

Now, it’s impossible to directly compare her experience with the Physics community to Rubin’s; notably Hershel was freely given access to her brother’s instruments to use independently when she was not required to assist him and therefore did not have to seek access through a university. However, she experienced no barriers to having her work published and was highly respected during her lifetime on her own merit. In contrast, Rubin was averse to the treatment she experienced from senior astronomers and “wanted a problem no one would bother [Rubin] about.”1 Even though it’s hard to say definitively who had it worse I don’t detect any significant improvement in Rubin’s career nearly 200 years later.

A few decades after Herschel, in 1780, Mary Somerville was born. She balanced her responsibilities as a daughter of a well-connected family with her passion for her studies in many subject areas. She secretly studied whilst living with her parents until she could more openly pursue knowledge during and after her first marriage to a distant cousin who was unfortunately prejudiced against learned women. She finally had full opportunity to pursue her interests during her second marriage as her husband was highly supportive and together they moved in the leading scientific societies.7 She was elected to become a member of at least six learned societies including the Royal Astronomical Society, becoming the joint first female member with Herschel.8

She was a prolific science writer and translator, she tutored Ada Lovelace (who became the first computer programmer) and influenced Maxwell (voted 3rd greatest Physicist of all time)8 but she is most well-known for discussing a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus in the 6th edition of On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1842). This preceded its observation via telescope and she is credited with an instrumental role in its discovery.9 Her legacy includes the University of Oxford’s Somerville College which was one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford10 and she will be the first woman not of the royal family to be featured on a Royal Bank of Scotland’s banknote when she appears on the £10 note later this year.11

Somerville, like Herschel, faced no barriers within the scientific community. Also like Herschel, the barriers she did face were due to parental worries and societal expectations. In a time when education was largely denied to women both these talented individuals were respected and recognised for their work.

A century later in 1878, when it was difficult and rare but not unheard of for women to work in science Lise Meitner was born. She was privately educated as women were not allowed to attend public institutions of higher education in Vienna. She obtained a doctoral degree in Physics and then became Planck’s assistant who worked on some projects with Otto Hahn, a chemist. In 1912 she and Hahn moved to a new institute, Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI), in Berlin – initially she worked as a “guest”; she was offered a permanent position there after nearly following as offer for an associate professorship in Prague.12, 13 She made important discoveries such as the Auger effect (named after a scientist who independently discovered it shortly afterwards) and became the first woman to work in the post of professor in Germany. She, in her post as head of the Physics department, alongside Hahn, now the director of KWI, formed a research programme with the aim to create heavier elements than Uranium in the laboratory.13

In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power, Meitner was partially protected by her Austrian citizenship whilst other Jewish scientists were dismissed from their posts or forced to resign. However, her situation became difficult after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany and she fled, eventually taking up a position in Stockholm. She had laboratory space but as she wasn’t invited into a group, given resources to run one or even a set of keys this was a position in name only. She stayed in contact with her ex-colleagues in Germany and Hahn told her about his work where he had experimentally produced results that supported the idea of nuclear fission (the breaking up of atoms into smaller atoms accompanied by a release in energy). He was unable to explain the result but Meitner and her nephew, Frisch, deduced a theory. It explained why no larger elements that Uranium exist in nature; they were also first to realise that Einstein’s equation, E = mc2, explained the energy release. Hahn published their findings without including Meitner as a co-author which is somewhat understandable given the situation in Nazi Germany.13 Meitner and Frisch published separately so their contribution was known by the Nobel Prize committee, nevertheless, Hahn alone received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1944 “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”.12, 14

Meitner, despite having better access to education than the likes of Somerville and Herschel, was not treated well on the whole by the Physics community. Scientists who knew and worked with her highly respected her ability and intelligence. Chadwick, who discovered the neutron and who Meitner helped by sending him polonium for his experiments, said he was “quite convinced that [Meitner] would have discovered the neutron if it had been firmly in her mind”.15 However, she was ill-treated by institutions and those who did not know her well purely because of her gender. There is no doubt that Hahn deserved the Nobel Prize but many strongly believe Meitner should have shared it and that she was excluded by the Committee in Sweden due to a lack of appreciation of her contribution caused in part by the exclusion of her name from Hahn’s papers but also by her being a woman.

Vera Rubin’s experience most closely resembles Lise Meitner’s suggesting the experience of a woman in science has degraded as access has improved. It’s clear to see that becoming educated in Physics and becoming a physicist has become much easier for women. Since partway through the 20th century women are no longer banned from accessing facilities due to their gender and there is plenty of legislation designed to prevent gender discrimination in education and employment. But, as if to balance that access, the culture of scientific institutions aims to drive women out by opposing them in other ways. Neither Herschel nor Somerville experienced strong opposition when they performed science (although, it is worth noting that they were afforded protection by their association with respected men; brother and husband respectively). This may be because the rarity of women in science meant that no stereotyping against them yet existed. Nowadays, children know young that certain expectations, such as your future job, are tied to your gender. This is taught; early in life boys and girls are equally interested in science but proportions swiftly shift with age.16

A contributing factor to this shift may be the role models children have easy access to. Research shows children choose roles models who look like them; in other words “likeness begets liking”. For example, boys are more likely to choose male role models and African-American and white children are more likely to choose role models of their own race. Other groups, like girls and Latino children were more likely to choose role models who differed from them – the authors of the study suggest this is due to a lack of choice.17 Recognising those who look like you isn’t restricted to children however, one study found that the inclusion of women as convenors of scientific symposiums “correlated with a significantly higher proportion of invited female speakers”.18

The “leaky pipeline”, where women drop from the academic ladder, has been attributed to many reasons including lack of representation and discrimination.18 It was previously mentioned that teaching girls at a young age they are not suited to science prevents them entering the field. It could also be argued that teaching boys that science is for them (and only them) leads to men being unable to accept female co-workers later in life. Nobel Prize winner, Tim Hunt, spoke at a conference in 2015 about the “trouble with girls… in the lab”, remarking that emotional entanglements make life difficult and that “when you criticise them they cry”.19 Furthermore, sexual harassment is a huge problem in the workplace, it is often perpetrated against women by their superiors. It can be much more difficult to report assaults and address the issue in the research community as scientists rely so heavily on supervisors for their career advancement.20

Karen Livesey, who is making a film about the recently acknowledged women who helped build Waterloo Bridge, said “Each generation of women believe they are ground-breaking, because the history of what’s already been achieved isn’t there”.21 There’s no question that access to Physics has gotten far better through time. It is hard now to even imagine a society where a university or supervisor could openly deny you a place for being a women. However, there are still barriers in place. Young women are less likely to pursue a career in Physics and if they do they are less likely than men with equivalent qualifications to stay.16 Women shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to achieve or be recognised for their work; they shouldn’t have to suffer through unpaid work like Meitner; lack basic facilities like Rubin; or work with and for people who abuse them. Women and girls need role models like the extraordinary women described in this article to be visible so they know it’s not so extraordinary to be a woman in Physics. We need these role models so that women and men alike know that women contribute to Physics; women belong in Physics and that Physics belongs to us all – not just men.


[1] D. Overbye, Vera Rubin, 88, Dies; Opened Doors in Astronomy, and for Women, The New York Times (2016)

[2] Royal Astronomical Society, Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (accessed 09/01/2017)

[3] The StarChild Team, Caroline Herschel, StarChild (accessed 08/01/2017)

[4] C. Herschel, Memoir and correspondence of Caroline Herschel (1876), Wikisource (accessed 08/01/2017)

[5] Roya Astronomical Society, Biographical notice of Caroline Herschel, Hon. Mem., The SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (accessed 02/01/2017)

[6] N. T. Redd, Caroline Herschel Biography, (2012)

[7] M. Somerville, Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville: with selections from her correspondence, (accessed 05/01/2017)

[8] Wikipedia, Mary Somerville (accessed 02/01/2017)

[9] E. Gregersen, Mary Somerville: British Science Writer, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016)

[10] Somerville College, History (accessed 09/01/2017)

[11] Royal bank of Scotland, New £5 and £10 polymer notes unveiled (2016)

[12] R. L. Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (1996)

[13] Famous Scientists, Lise Meitner (2016)

[14] Nobel Media, The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1944, (2014)

[15] Wikipedia, Lise Meitner (accessed 02/01/17)

[16] Live Science Staff, Top 5 Myths About Girls, Math and Science, Live Science (2007)

[17] H. Fletcher-Wood, The impact of role models on young people: a brief review, Teach First (2016)

[18] A. Casadevall, J. Handelsman, The Presence of Female Conveners Correlates with a Higher Proportion of Female Speakers at Scientific Symposia, mBio Volume 5, Issue 1 (2014)

[19] BBC, Sir Tim Hunt ‘sorry’ over ‘trouble with girls’ comments (2015)

[20] M. C. Hardy, We need to talk about the sexual abuse of scientists, (2014)

[21] Y. Roberts, The forgotten women who helped build Waterloo Bridge, The Guardian (2015)

Invisible Women: Where are our Female Role Models?

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