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On Marie Curie’s 150th birth anniversary, women still not adequately represented in STEM fields

More than a century after Marie Curie broke the glass ceiling for women in science, the number of women in STEM fields continues to belie the number of years that have passed

editorials Updated: Nov 08, 2017 12:07 IST
Hindustan Times
Marie Curie,Women in STEM,Women in Science
The international physics conference convened in Brussels by Belgian chemical magnate Ernest Solvay, 1911. Perhaps the most formidable gathering of scientists ever, most are Nobel laureates. Marie Curie is the only woman in the gathering. Left to right standing: Victor Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Rubens, Somerfeld, Lindemann, Louis Victor De Broglie, Knudsen, Hasenohrl, Hostelet, Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh-Onnes, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin. Left to right seated at table: Walther Nernst, Marcel Louis Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Otto Heinrich Warburg, Jean Baptiste Perrin, Wilhelm Wien, Madame Marie Curie, Jules Henri Poincare (Couprie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1903, she became the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize. In 1906, she became the first woman professor at Sorbonne University in Paris. In 1911, she became the first person (not woman, person) to ever win two Nobel Prizes in a lifetime. Marie Curie, who was born on November 7, 150 years ago, was a rare successful woman in an overwhelmingly male world of scientific research at a time when it was unheard of for women to be in positions of authority that they hadn’t been born into. Her 150th birth anniversary is as good a reason as any to look at how far women in science have come since.

More than a century after Marie Curie broke that glass ceiling, the number of women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and medicine – fields continues to belie the number of years that have passed. Consider this: Since Curie’s physics Nobel in 1903, only one other woman has ever won that prize; and since her chemistry Nobel in 1911, only three other women including her daughter have ever won. In the 117 years of its existence, 12 women have won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Women who have won the Nobel Prize in the sciences
  • Marie Curie, 1903 - Physics
  • Marie Curie, 1911 - Chemistry
  • Irene Joliot-Curie, 1935 - Chemistry
  • Gerty Theresa Cori, 1947 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Maria Goeppert-Mayer, 1963 - Physics
  • Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, 1964 - Chemistry
  • Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, 1977- Physiology or Medicine
  • Barbara McClintock, 1983 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini, 1986 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Gertrude B. Elion, 1988 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, 1995 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Linda B. Buck, 2004 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, 2008 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Carol W. Greider 2009, - Physiology or Medicine
  • Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Ada E. Yonath, 2009 - Chemistry
  • May-Britt Moser, 2014 - Physiology or Medicine
  • Tu Youyou, 2015 - Physiology or Medicine

The current situation in India has not improved the state of affairs much. Of all the enrolments in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), only about 10% are women. Those in PhD and post doctoral research are even fewer. A survey found that while 46% of all undergraduate students in STEM fields are women, not many continue to work in the field. A shocking 41% of women in technology quit their role after a decade, as compared to 17% of men; and 81% of women in STEM fields in India perceived a gender bias in performance evaluation.

It is not just this sort of blatant misogyny (Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt commented that the trouble with “girls” is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when they are criticised) and sexual harassment which works against women. The deep-seated bias that women simply cannot “do” science keeps them from even breaking into the networks that are so essential for rising in research fields. Having been slotted into the arts, social work, and teaching bracket that is seen as appropriate for the gentler sex, it isn’t easy for women to break free. Earlier this year, a promising PhD scholar from IIT Delhi committed suicide, allegedly under pressure from her husband and in-laws for dowry and to give up her research dreams. Her father, in despair after her death, had told the Hindustan Times that he wished he had saved money for her dowry instead of investing in her education. The immense pressure to conform to these traditional gender roles; and put the demands of family before their careers, are some of the main reasons for women opting out of high pressure careers such as STEM.

It is the job of universities and governments, and society at large to ensure that hiring practices in organisations are free from the insidious sexism that keeps women from achieving their full potential. Or we are facing the danger of squandering the legacy of one of the greatest scientists to ever walk the earth.

First Published: Nov 07, 2017 19:08 IST