It was not long after Lise Meitner came to Berlin in early 1907, in order to extend her studies and advance her researches, that she established what was going to be a long-term research partnership with the German chemist Otto Hahn. Together with her associate, with whom she exceptionally collaborated for thirty years, and with her nephew Otto Frisch, Meitner set the theoretical principles of nuclear fission, a concept which she coined herself in her scientific explanation of Hahn’s experiment in 1939.

Such finding, which laid the foundation for a variety of later discoveries whose impact is known to this day, almost seven decades later, definitely deserved all the greatest recognitions, such as the Nobel Prize which Otto Hahn received in 1944 “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”, thus becoming a timeless scientific genius. Meitner’s contribution to the understanding of nuclear fission seemed to have been overlooked by the Swedish scientists, as well as by a large amount of people; she obtained acknowledgments in the following years, yet never equal to Hahn’s.

Even though in Meitner’s case the political atmosphere of Nazi Germany back then also wasn’t helpful, Lise Meitner is certainly not a rare example of innumerable occurrences when a woman is omitted from an important award or a crucial scientific paper, just because she is a woman. The fact that she was not the only woman who found herself written-off and overshadowed by male scientists, despite having significantly contributed to the development of numerous scientific findings, isn’t that surprising. Just like Meitner, a lot of women scientists have been demeaned countless times, usually not mentioned at all, or reduced to the role of mere assistants who, in accordance to the stereotypical acceptance of gender, perform mainly routine tasks that don’t require undue mental effort. At the same time, their male partners are being elevated, acclaimed and celebrated for their alleged inherent geniuses.

Several studies (Heilman and Haynes 2005; Wanneras and Wold 1997) focusing on the sexist nature of the process of evaluation and honor giving prove that women’s work is often reduced to a secondary position in science as it is being perceived less valuable and relevant to the work produced by their male colleagues. Sadly, this kind of androcentric view is not constricted only to men nor it is present solely in the field of science; the fact is that this belief has been grounded in society as a generally recognized and accepted state of things. Other studies (Correll et al.2007; Steinpreis et al. 1999) conclude that the degradation of women’s capabilities through the devaluation of their works and contributions derives both from men and women. The American neurobiologist Jennifer Raymond opens her article for the science magazine Nature with this statement: “I have a bias against women in science”. She then goes on explaining that by solving the Implicit Association Test (IAT) (which measures our unconscious connotation between concepts), she found out that she tends to correlate men with career and science whereas women with family and arts, which appears quite unexpected given that she herself is a scientist at a high position, mentor and advocate for women in science. However, when we look at the results obtained on the IAT, the numbers confirm the same; among hundreds of thousands of citizens from 34 different countries 70% associated science more with males than with females. Such outdated beliefs are the consequence – and also result in – the suppression of women in science. This means that although the number of female students, researchers and scientists in different fields is growing (though disproportionately), the factors which dictate one’s stature, such as the number of citations, the evaluation of one’s scholarly research and the prestigious awards do not reflect the demographic data. Women are present yet not acknowledged.

This sort of discrimination (which is implemented as a habitual process so widely accepted that is almost completely invisible for the majority) has been identified as the Matilda effect by Margaret Rossiter (1993), an American historian of science. The Matilda effect, named in honor of the American suffragette and women’s rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826—1898), refers to the systematic under-representation of women, the denial of their contribution to researches, and the repeated attribution of their merits to their male counterparts. The term was coined after the concept of the American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who formed the Matthew effect in 1968, referring to the “’halo effect’ experienced by well-known scientists who find work attributed to themselves which they did not do (or did not do totally alone)”.
This system of unequal “accumulation of advantage” has been present for ages, and is still very common nowadays. Researchers (Knobloch—Westerwick and Glynn 2011; Carli et al. 2016) find its explanation in role congruity theory which focuses on the coherence between constructed gender roles and other socially constructed roles, as in this case the scientist role. Such interpretation proposes that “prejudice against female scientists arises from the dissimilarity between a female gender role and the expectations commonly held toward individuals in a scientist role”. In a research published in 2016, authors determined that women are still perceived to lack competencies required to be an acknowledged scientist, which suggest that the Matilda effect is still a frequent phenomenon in the scientific world.
The ingrained sexism resulting with the Matilda effect opens up a wide range of discussions that go beyond the question of the woman—scientist identity; like the social construction of science itself. As Rossiter writes: “Not only have those unrecognized in their own time generally remained so, but others that were well-known in their day have since been obliterated from history, either by laziness or inertia, or by historians with definite axes to grind”. The effect thus results in more than just the denial of women’s capabilities; it also leads to the erasure of women scientists from history, and because of that invisibility our knowledge and perceptions turn into today’s popular belief that science is masculine.

References:

Carli, Linda L., Laila Alawa, YoonAh Lee, Bei Zhao and Elaine Kim. 2016. Stereotypes About Gender and Science: Women ≠ Scientists. Psychology of Women Quarterly: 1—17.

Correll Shelley J., Stephen Benard and In Paik. 2007. Getting a job: Is there a moterhood penalty? American Journal of Sociology 112: 1297—1338.

Des Jardins, Julie. 2010. The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. New York: The Feminist Press.

Heilman, Madeline E. and Michelle C. Haynes. 2005. No Credit Where Credit is Due: Attributional Rationalization of Women’s Success in Male—Female Teams. Journal of Applied Psychology 90 (5): 905—916,

Knobloch—Westerwick, Silvia and Carroll J. Glynn. 2011. The Matilda Effect—Role Congruity Effects on Scholarly Communication: A Citation Analysis of Communicaiton Research and Journal of Communication Articles. Communication Research XX (X): 1—24.

Lincoln, Anne E., Stephanie Pincus, Janet Bandows Koster and Phoebe S. Leboy. 2012. The Matilda Effect in Science: Awards and Prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s. Social Studies of Science 0 (0): 1—14.

Nobel Prize. 2016. All Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/ (27/6/2016)

Nosek Brian A., Frederick L. Smyth, N. Sririam, Nicole M. Lindner et al. 2009. National Differences in Gender—Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievements. PNAS 106 (26): 10593—10597.

Raymond, Jennifer. 2013. Sexist Attitudes: Most of us are biased. Nature 495: 33—34.

Rossiter, Margaret W. 1993. The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science. Social Studies of Science 23: 325—341.

Sime, Ruth Lewin. 1997. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Steinpreis, Rhea E., Katie A. Anders and Dawn Ritzke. 1999. The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates: A national empirical study. Sex Roles 41 (7–8): 509—528.

Wanneras, Christine and Agnes Wold. 1997. Nepotism and sexism in peer—review. Nature 387: 341—343.