Women in the shadow

Dr. Dora Barrancos, CONICET board member of the area of Social Sciences and Humanities, talks about the recognition of women in science and technology.


11 de febrero "Día Internacional de la Mujer y la Niña en la Ciencia"

In 2015, when the General Assembly of the United Nations established February 11th as the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science”, the UNESCO and UN Women accepted the challenge to overcome obstacles and promote a new generation of scientists that can have equal opportunities and full inclusion. In this spirit, Dr. Dora Barrancos is a national leading promoter of gender equality and fight against patriarchy. As a principal researcher and current member of the board of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in the area of Social Sciences and Humanities, she analyses the recognition of women in the different fields of science and technology and the key role of historiography today.

“Women have always participated in scientific and technological knowledge. Although Argentina is considered as an exception, women have always tended to be a minority. What makes it worse is the lack of recognition of their production”, states the researcher. From the second half of the twentieth century and with a recent study on historiography, there have been significant changes in which important scientific contributions of female scientists were rediscovered.

“Stereotypes and patriarchal bias delimited scientific jobs for men and housework for women”, Barrancos describes and adds that that did not prevent having a historical record mainly from half a century ago, which included the persistent contribution of women in science and technology. “Thanks to the current renewed historiography available, a good part of the women who created the technological alternatives. They focused on utensils, tools, equipment for domestic life, heating devices, for instance.” She comments that in Argentina it is still pending a study on women creators of patents. We need to work on this. There has to be historiographical occupation to recognize these contributions as well.”

As regards different scientific areas, the researcher states that there is considerable increase in the participation of women in Biological Sciences in the whole world –“another phenomenon to analyse”, she says. There are also many women in Chemical Sciences and in contrast, it is still minor the amount of women in Physics and Mathematics. “Social Sciences gather several women but the humanities diminished the recognition of women during the 19th century and great part of the 20th century. Historian or philosopher was male professions.” In technology, she finds it surprising that there are few recognized female technologists: “there are more chances to recognize the contributions to science made by women that the technological transformations made by them.”

Despite the recent studies on the opinion about science and genders, she states that “there is still a prevailing view of it as masculine activity.” To conclude, she highlights the difficult task of gaining recognition of female production of knowledge in its fields. For this reason, the historiographical record should be considered a fundamental tool. “Women’s rights in terms of science have advanced but it has to continue”, adds the scientist.

The women that are portrayed below were overshadowed. They made huge contributions but were hidden due to the model of stereotype of non-recognition and the value of the work of men in Science and Technology:

When Mileva and Albert Einstein met at the Zurich polytechnic school of Zurich, she was already a physicist and mathematician with a privileged education at that time. She gained admission by means of a special permission that allowed her to attend lessons that back then were exclusive for men. She studied numbers theory, differential and integral calculus, elliptic functions and electrodynamics with the pioneer of photoelectric study, Nobel Philip Lenard. After her marriage with Einstein, a record of her work managed to be done thanks to the correspondence with her husband. In those 43 letters, which appeared after her death, there are lines that say “our research”, “our work”, “our theory of relativity”, what made great part of the scientific community reconsider the participation of Mileva in the “Annus Mirabilis”, the year (1905) of her husband. The truth is that Einstein did not have training on the topics of his publications. After a congress that took place in 1990, those who met there concluded that in spite of not having evidence to confirm that supposition, there was no information to deny it. After their divorce, when Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, he gives a great part of money to Mileva, who used it to pay for the psychiatric treatment of one of her children.

Hedy was a gifted woman who studied engineering and drama. When she shot to fame in 1932 with the movie “Ecstasies” (very controversial at that time), her family felt ashamed and forced her to get married. During that time of “authentic slavery”, as she describes in her memoirs, she dedicated herself to technology and learnt specific content on weapon industry from the clients and suppliers of her husband. She married one of the most influential men in Europe, a supplier of weapons and control system of Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1937, she walked out on her husband and runs away to the US, where she was hired as an actress and changes her name. When she introduced herself before the recently created National Inventors Council as an engineering and with all the confidential information collected during her marriage, Hedy was not taken seriously and was rejected after the suggestion that she used her beauty and success as an actress to sell war bonuses. She continued working on her invention: the Secret Communications System, what improved the security of transmissions with her method of frequency commutation, making it impossible to intercept the message. In 1942, she and George Antheir patented the system and she signed with her married name: Markey. When the electronic system of communications replaced the mechanic one, her application became viable and was used in military production keeping her patent. That technology was identified for the first time in the so called “Cuban missile crisis” in 1962 and currently is the responsible for the functioning of Wifi and Bluetooth wireless connections.

When Rosalind Frankling got her scholarship, her father asked her to give it to another student who needed it. Despite that, she studied Social Sciences and became a physicist, chemist, and mathematician at Cambridge University at a time when women could not get degrees or masters. “Science and ordinary life could not and should not be separated.” She had active participation in trade unions and movements for women’s suffrage. She specialized in Chemistry and crystallography. After getting her PhD, she managed to obtain the first X-ray diffraction that allowed observing the double helix structure of DNA molecule. The famous picture was known as “Photograph 51” and was fundamental for the advance in genetics as it could infer the helical structure. The finding was decisive but she did not get credit for it. Her laboratory mate, Wilkins –without her knowing- showed the photograph to Watson, who –along with Crick- was obsessed with beating Luns Pauling in a competition for the discovery of the structure of DNA. On top of that, Rosalid had given a text to be evaluated to Max Perutz, who would leak the study so that Watson and Crick knew about. Those three men obtained in 1962 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their studies on DN, which were published in Nature. This journal, considering the editor’s indications, published the study presented by Frankling in 3rd place, presenting it as if it was a continuation of the study published by “her male colleagues.” When they received the prize, one of them mentioned the author of the “Photograph 51.”

Melita invented “the perfect way to enjoy coffee.” She was a housewife and entrepreneur. Tired of spoiling coffee with the remains that fell in the drink and using linen bags, she patented in 1908 the coffee filter. The mechanism was created with the blotting paper her child used in his notebook and a can. Her idea became popular in the “coffee afternoons” in which her invention was tested with the people she knew. Her family agreed to create the company which grew quicky and sold 1.200 filters in the Liepzig fair. Melita won prizes and medals with her family business. It survived both World Wars, interrupting the production and taking it back to meet the demand that increased. In 1930, her son led the company and Melita turned her business into true examples that promoted good working conditions. Her employees had bonuses, a five-day workday, annual increase in vacation days and the “Melita system” of social welfare, measures at a time when labor exploitation was not regulated. Currently, the company is controlled by her grandchildren.

By Natalia Behar Sosa