Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

Women in science are facing many of the same barriers, inequality, and discrimination that they did 300 years ago

Shared by

JoEllen McBride


While doing research on Maria Winkelmann-Kirch for my most recent Massive article, I kept being reminded how little progress there has been for women in science today. 

When I noticed that she wasn’t given credit for the discovery of Comet 1702 H in the textbook I referenced, it reminded me of recent news stories about women in the sciences showing up in the acknowledgments for work that deserves authorship.  

Winkelmann-Kirch and her husband worked as a team. The only significant difference between them was that she did not attend a university — forbidden for women at the time. Both had discovered comets. Both could make accurate calendars and perform the necessary calculations. When the Academy of Sciences in Berlin denied her petition to take over her husband’s position after his death, all I could think about was those studies where researchers changed the names on resumes from male to female and found that hiring committees were less likely to hire the woman. Or reports that women in the biomedical sciences need to publish 2.5 times more than men to earn the same postdoctoral positions.

As a woman who became a mother during graduate school, the way Winkelmann-Kirch was treated throughout her career felt all too familiar. Today, research has shown that close to half of women leave full-time STEM work after having children — I’m one of them. I may not have been actively pushed out as Winkelmann-Kirch was, but the lack of support made it difficult to be productive with a family

The only difference 300 years has given us is that the sexism is sometimes more subtle. What is still painfully clear is that women and minorities can never be ‘good enough’ for a system that both actively and passively pushes them out. That needs to change.