Overlooking female innovation in science
Jan 19, 2000
Women scientists have traditionally been interpreters rather than innovators according to a female American astronomer. Gina Hamilton from the University of Southern Maine believes that the accomplishments of many women scientists were either overlooked by their contemporaries, or were assumed to belong to their male collaborators. Indeed, many women scientists elected to downplay their accomplishments for social reasons, a factor that is still prevalent today says Hamilton. This modesty damages the scientific prestige of female researchers, and can also jeopardise their future career she argues (http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/physics/0001026).
Hamilton came to her conclusions after studying the writings of female scientists over the past two and a half thousand years, and reading descriptions of women scientists by others. She analysed the diaries of scientists such as Sofie Brahe (the sister of the astronomer Tycho Brahe) and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and compared their experiences with her own. Leavitt's work on the luminosity of variable stars led to the standard technique for calculating distances in cosmology, for instance, but she was never awarded a professorship at Harvard because she was a woman.
Hamilton believes that more women innovators will appear as social attitudes change. "I think we haven't learned the skill of appearing to be the humble academic while still somehow informing everybody who counts of our accomplishments," she says. "Women are still encouraged to be modest, more so then men, and even female scientists attempt to fit that social mould."