Friday, September 6, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part I: Lise Meitner

Marie Curie (1903)
Some people would like to believe that, in the "enlightened" 21st century that we live in, sexism is all but a thing of the past. Sadly, while things have improved greatly over the years in many countries around the world, sexism and gender bias are still major problems in our society.  You don't have to look very far to see that.

Science and medicine are both fields that have a long history of sexism and gender bias.  Some of the most important scientific discoveries were made by women who fought hard to gain a place in male-dominated fields, only to later see the credit for these discoveries go largely to their male collegues or supervisors. 

Sure, there were certainly many important women scientists who were well-recognized for their accomplishments, including the great Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes (one in physics and one chemistry, the only person to win in two different categories) for her discovery of radium and studies on radioactivity, and Barbara McClintock, who won a 1983 Nobel Prize for her work on genetic inheritance.  Unfortunately, though, there were many brilliant women scientists who were overlooked, ignored, or otherwise taken advantage of.  

Let's disuss a little bit about gender bias in science and few of the women pioneers who helped to change the way we look at the world but who ended up getting far less credit and fame than their really deserved.

Barbara McClintock (1947)
Examples of Gender Bias in Science Today

While open cases of discrimination in science are far more rare today than they were 50 or 100 years ago, women are still under-represented in higher-level positions of academic science, a situation which can lead to significant gender bias.  We need to quickly review how academic positions and promotions usually work in order to understand the statistics below we'll mention below.  We'll focus on what are called "tenure track" positions, which are usually considered the "highest" levels in academia.

Once someone receives a PhD in science or engineering, they often (depending on the field) work for anywhere from a 1-5 (or more) years as a "postdoc" (postdoctoral researcher or postdoctoral fellow) in someone else's lab until they can publish enough papers and/or get enough grant money to be competitive for a "real" job on the track to the academic goal of tenure.  Many alternatives to this exist, including industry jobs, consulting, teaching, etc., but we are going to focus in this post mainly on academic research.  In academia, tenure basically came about as a way to ensure that university professors could "speak their mind" and not be influenced by politics or other influences that prevented them from teaching or researching "the truth."  Some would argue that it is now an antiquated concept that should be done away with, but that's not a topic for this post.      

The first "tenure track" job that a postdoc or PhD student will get is assistant professor. Assistant professors do not have tenure, but rather they work in this position for anywhere from 5-10 years (depending on their institution) until they "come up" for tenure.  A committee meets to decide if they have met the requirements (publications, research grants, teaching contributions, etc.), and if so, they are "promoted" to associate professor with tenure, which basically means that they can't be fired as long as they meet certain basic requirements.   It very much depends on the rules of the individual institution, and tenure isn't a total free pass at employment for life, but it is far more of a guarantee of employment than exists in almost any other field.  An associate professor can then eventually be promoted to full professor (usually just professor) depending on his or her accomplishments.

What is interesting about the gender distribution in science is that the percentage of women drops off significantly as you go higher up these ranks of academia.  The US National Science Foundation reports that approximately half of the PhDs given out each year in science and engineering are earned by women, yet women make up only 21% of full science professors and 5% of full engineering professors.  Those women that have made it to the full professor level earn, on average, about 82% of what their male peers do.  A 2010 study by the US National Research Council likewise showed that only 36% of assistant professors and only 27% of tenure candidates were women.  This phenomenon is not restricted to the US.  A 2008 editorial in Current Biology noted that in Germany, only about 11% of full professors were women, while at the most prestigious German research institution, The Max-Planck Society, only about 7% of the institute directors were women.

There is a tremendous drop off from about 50% women at academia's lower levels (PhD students to postdocs) to 20-30% women or even less at higher levels.  This is also reflected in the amount of funding given to men and women scientists.   In 2002, approximately 24% of US National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants went to women, while ten years later the number was still only around 30%.  What is even more interesting and shocking, though, is that the average size of these research grants given to women are much smaller than the same grants given to men.  Grants given to women were funded at a approximately 20% lower level in 2002 ($330,169 vs $403,047) and approximately 17% lower level in 2012 ($421,385 vs $507,279).  As you can see in the dollar figures, that's a large monetary difference, enough to significantly impact the success or failure of a research project.   

Some of these gender inequalities also cross over into the biotech industry.  For example, in 1981-1995, less than 10% of the scientists on biotech scientific advisory boards were women, while in a "matched sample" of prominent scientists from the same fields, about 30% were women.  It appears that women are asked less frequently to be on the scientific advisory boards of biotech companies.

This lack of "retention" of women in science has been suggested to be due partly to the lack of female role models in higher-level positions, a lack of a "family-friendly" environment in academic research, where one is often expected to work long hours.  Some of this may indeed be true. Due to the nature of biology, women who want to have a family have to be the ones to have babies, and taking time off to have a child can negatively impact any career.  But, while things seem to be getting better slowly, no one can argue with the fact that real gender bias still exists in science just like it does in all fields. Scientists are human, after all, and subject to the same human flaws, imperfections, mistakes, and errors as everyone else.

In order to understand a problem, you need to examine its roots, so I thought I would create a series of posts about historical women who played pivotal roles in science and worked tirelessly to do so, only to find later on that their work led to directly to their male colleagues being given science's highest honor, the Nobel Prize.   This series will not be an exhaustive list of important female scientists, but rather a series of examples of great women scientists who were wronged.  I hope it encourages a few readers to follow some of the links below to get more information on great women  in science history as well as better understand current issues concerning women and gender bias in science.
The Historical Case of Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
Lise Meitner (1906)

The science historian Margaret W. Rossiter described a phenomenon she termed the Matilda Effect, which is the repression and denial of the contribution of women scientists and the deflection of the credit for their discoveries onto their male colleagues.  This is adapted from a phenomenon called the Matthew Effect, described by Robert K. Merton in 1968, which describes how credit for discoveries is often deflected from less famous or unknown scientists to more famous scientists, often described by the simple terms of the "rich getting richer" and the "poor getting poorer."  The name of the Matthew Effect comes from a line in the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian New Testament (chapter 25, verse 29), which states, For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.  

The idea of the Matilda Effect is that, in group of researchers, the male scientists are automatically assumed by the scientific establishment to be the "brains" behind the discovery, and are thus attributed credit.  The first woman scientist we will discuss here, Lise Meitner, is often held up as an example of the Matilda Effect.

Though Meitner was born into a small Jewish family from Austria, her work in Berlin eventually earned her the nickname "The German Madame Curie" from Albert Einstein.  Her research helped to discover the phenomenon of nuclear fission, or the process of splitting atoms, which releases large amounts of energy.  The discovery of fission made both atomic power and the atomic bomb possible.

In 1905, Meitner became only the second woman in Vienna to obtain a PhD in physics in 1905. After her PhD, she traveled to Berlin and worked with the chemist Otto Hahn, but Hahn was working in Emil Fischer's laboratory (we mentioned Emil Fischer in the post on sugar alcohols), where women were forbidden.  They had to put Meitner in an old carpenter's workshop that they outfitted for her research, as German scientists of the time like Fischer did not approve of women in academia.  Two years later, however, partly because of Meitner's sucess, Emil Fischer dropped his ban on women scientists in the lab and actually became quite a supportive mentor to Meitner.

Meitner and Hahn (1913)
Meitner briefly took a hiatus as an x-ray nurse during World War I, but afterward she worked at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut, one of Germany's most prestigious research institutions, later renamed the Max-Planck Institute after World War II.   Meitner eventually became the head of a physics department there.  In 1926, she was the first woman in Germany to become a full professor of physics at the University of Berlin.  There she began to compete with other scientific greats like Ernest Rutherford and Enrico Fermi in a race to discover nuclear fission, a race that she won in 1939. At the time, these scientists hadn't yet linked the idea of fission to energy release and atomic weapons.  They were instead working on the more theoretical aspects of creating elements heavier than uranium in the lab as a potential Nobel Prize-winning feat.

The rise of Hitler to power in 1933 forced many of Meitner's colleagues to resign from their posts and flee Germany.  Being of Jewish descent but with Austrian citizenship, she managed to keep her job initially but did end up fleeing Germany in 1938 for the Netherlands with the help of Dutch physicist colleagues. She escaped with nothing more than the clothes on her back, 10 marks in her purse, and a diamond ring, given to her by Otto Hahn in case she had to bribe a border guard to get through.  Meitner started working in Stockholm and continued her research, and she became a friend and colleague of the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr.  She managed to covertly meet several times with Otto Hahn in Copenhagen to discuss experiments for Hahn and his colleague, Fritz Strassmann, to perform in their lab in Berlin to continue their work on fission.

This work led to Hahn and Strassman publishing a scientific paper in 1938, demonstrating that they had detected the element barium after they bombarded uranium with neutrons.  Unfortunately, Hahn and Strassman were still in Germany.  It was thus impossible for them to include the exiled Meitner on this paper, lest they incur the wrath of the Nazi regime.  However, Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, published a follow-up paper in 1939 in the journal Nature, where they correctly interpreted the results of Hahn and Strassman's study as the evidence of nuclear fission.

When atoms of the uranium isotope U-235 are bombarded with neutrons (uncharged subatomic particles; abreviated "N" below), the uranium nucleus can absorb the neutron and transform the uranium atom into the U-236 isotope.  U-236 is an "excited state" that is short-lived and quickly spits, releasing two lighter compounds (krypton; Kr) and barium (Ba) as well as a large amount of energy, gamma rays, and 3 free neutrons that fly off at high speed.    

A single nuclear fission reaction

Meitner became the first to realize that Einstein's equation for mass-energy equivalence, E = mc2, is the reason for the large amounts of energy released during nuclear fission.  She also recognized that fission could be used to create a chain reaction and release enormous amounts of energy, potentially with explosive applications.  The neutrons released from one U-235 fission reaction can go on to start other fission reaction, which themselves release more high-speed neutrons.  

The start of a nuclear fission chain reaction

The atomic mushroom cloud over Nagasaki (1945)

This discovery was part of the catalyst for Albert Einstein's letter to Franklin Roosevelt, in which he explained the potentially catastrophic implications of Germany developing an atomic weapon before the Allied forces, resulting in Roosevelt's creation of the Manhattan Project, a massive top-secret project that included many of the world's best scientists and engineers.  The goal of the Manhattan project was simple: develop an atomic weapon before Germany.  When Meitner was offered a place to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, she adamantly refused, saying that she would "have nothing to do with a bomb."  In the end, though, Germany could not produce a fission bomb before they were defeated by the Allies, but the Allies did develop two atomic weapons in 1945.  These use of these two atomic bombs was a key component in forcing Japan to surrender.   

R1, Sweden's first nuclear reactor
After the war, Meitner worked on research related to the peaceful use of nuclear fission, including the development Sweden's first nuclear reactor, a research reactor known as R1.  During this time, Meitner also became extremely vocal with her criticisms of Hahn and other German scientists who had collaborated with the Nazis and made little attempts to protest Hitler and his policies.  Meitner wrote that they betrayed their friends, their children, and Germany itself.   Despite this and events that would follow, she still remained friends with Otto Hahn for the rest of their lives.  However, Meitner never moved back to Germany, but rather carried on with her life and research in Stockholm.    

Meitner at a lecture (1946)
In November of 1945, only Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of nuclear fissionMeitner's crucial role in the discovery was omitted.  The Nobel Prize committee gave Hahn sole credit.  Despite many other honors that were awarded to Meitner over the ensuing years, many historians consider the Nobel snub to be an epic omission to her great legacy as a scientist.  Historians have since found many letters between Hahn and Meitner from the years leading up to 1939 that clearly show how she guided Hahn through many of his experiments.  At the time, though, Hahn helped to rationalize Meitner's exclusion by attributing a supporting role to her, and he appeared to happily accept sole credit for the discovery.  Unfortunately, the Nobel committee failed to either recognize, understand, or admit Meitner's contributions, and most physicists and historians agree that Meitner was grossly wronged.

Meitner retired in 1960 and moved to Britain to live with relatives, though she continued to give lectures and write.  She died in 1968, when she was 89 years old.  Her tombstone epitaph was written by her nephew, Otto Frisch, who helped her with her work on fission while exiled from Germany.  It reads,

Lise Meitner 
A physicist 
who never lost
her humanity 

We will never really know exactly what role her gender played in the decision to omit her from the Nobel Prize, but perhaps it played into the idea that her work simply supported Hahn's, an example of the Matilda Effect in action.  We don't know for sure, but we'll see in the future posts that the theme of a deserving women being denied Nobel recognition is a relatively common in history, regardless of the cause-and-effect relationship.
Text © 2013 TheMadScienceBlog.  Images are public domain.    

Sources and Further Reading
  • Encyclopedia Britanica Blog. "10 Women Scientists Who Should Be Famous (Or More Famous)." 10 March 2011. Available here.
  • O.R. Frisch. "Lise Meitner. 1879-1968." Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 1970. 16:405-420.
  • J.J. Lee. "6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism." National Geographic. 19 May 2013. Available here.
  • A. McCook. "Barred from the Boardroom." Nature. 2013. 495:25-27.
  • B. Muhlenbruch. "Only Wholesale Reform Will Bring Equality." Nature. 2013. 495:40-42.
  • C. Nusslein-Volhard. "Women in Science--Passion and Prejudice." Current Biology. 2008. 18:R185-R187. Available here.
  • National Research Council, et al. Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty. 2010. National Academies Press. Free to read online. Available here.
  • A.M. Petersen, W.-S. Jung, J.-S. Yang, H.E. Stanley. "Quantitative and Empirical Evidence of the Matthew Effect in a Study of Career Longevity." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 2010. 108:18-23. Available here.
  • S. Ravindran. "Barbara McClintock and the Discovery of Jumping Genes." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 2012. 109: 20198-20199. Available here. [Link opens a PDF]
  • M.W. Rossiter. "The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science." Social Studies of Science. 1993. 23:325-341.
  • San Diego Supercomputer Center. "Women in Science. A Selection of 16 Significant Contributors." Available here.
  • H. Shen. "Mind the Gender Gap." Nature. 2013. 495:22-24. [Includes a lot of statistics about Women vs Men in Academia used for the intro to this post.]
  • E. Westly. "No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs." Scientific American. 6 Oct. 2008. Available here.
  • S. Zielinski. "10 Historic Female Scientists You Should Know." Smithsonian Magazine. 20 September 2011. Available here.


  1. Thank you for writing this.every point you make is identical to my lifetime observations. I would like to add that some men, for example Alan Turing, who unlike Meitner was the subject of a movie, experienced betrayal and unconscionable assukt on his personhood. While for her the vulnerability imposed by motherhood during a time with fewer childcare options, likely made having a love life outside of her love of physics, unviable, for Turing, it was forcibly destroyed. He was a contemporary, and also European, so similarly abusive laws and social conventions limited his options for living a happy life. Today, I believe humor and other forms of entertainment take the place of law and convention to limit the happiness of women and some men. This permeates university, home and work environments and results in sine of the same limitations on rewards for hard labor.


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