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Women in science: we know their contributions, but should properly honour their names too


Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Promoted by the UN, it is a great opportunity to start discussing up the contributions that women have made and continue to make in all fields of science. Historically, their visibility is low, which is why the IOP is encouraging everyone involved in physics and physics education to get involved by sharing their favourite female scientists on twitter – using the hashtag #WomeninSTEM and this poster.

It has been good to see the variety of scientists being discussed in the IOP education office as a result of this campaign. Big-hitters like Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell are popular, but people are also suggesting scientists that they have worked with, that have supported them through PhD research, or who have just generally been inspirational. There has been a nice spread both of historical figures and those working in research today.

What has been surprising is that some choices aren’t better known. I’ve flagged up Maria Goeppert-Mayer (above) on my poster. I only first heard about her last month, despite her being one of only two women to win the Nobel Prize in Physics and having studied her discoveries at school – the nuclear shell model of the atom. Her contributions are well known, her name less so. We all studied the nuclear model: it would have made a welcome break in the male-orientated history of western science presented at school if her name could have been mentioned too.

When Major Tim Peake blasted off into space in December, primary schools up and down the country used the ensuing excitement to motivate their students about science. This included my nine-year-old nieces, who couldn’t wait to tell me how you went to the toilet in space. It was exciting and it was novel, and I enjoyed chatting to them about it, but the best was the reaction from them when I told them that the first British astronaut was called Helen. They were surprised. Dr Helen Sharman was the first Briton and the first woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991, which wasn’t that long ago at all, yet she was not widely mentioned.

Just 20% of physics A-level students are girls. The reasons behind this are complex, but the strong link established by society between scientist and male doesn’t help. More prominence of the female side of science could help. So big up to our female scientists, however far along they may be in their careers. Some have several discoveries to their name, some are just starting out. Some are just starting school. Grab your marker, this poster and get tweeting. Show the world they exist and give them that bit more exposure that might allow young girls to start making the connection between themselves and science.

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Jessica Rowson

Jessica Rowson

Jessica Rowson is the project manager for IOP's work on girls in physics.
Jessica Rowson

One thought on “Women in science: we know their contributions, but should properly honour their names too

  1. The Helen Sharman omission baffled/annoyed me too. I suspect the main reason being that Tim Peake represents a major public engagement opportunity to a new generation. It’s a clearer message to ignore Helen Sharman as the first Brit, and indeed the other five UK born astronauts that went before. Shame though.

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