KEYWORDS: Matilda effect, gender bias, women scientists, stereotypes, role congruity theory


The Matilda Effect

It was not long after Lise Meitner came to Berlin in early 1907, to continue her studies and advance her research, that she established what would become a long-term research partnership with the German chemist Otto Hahn. Together with her associate, with whom she collaborated for thirty years, and with her nephew Otto Frisch, Meitner established the theoretical principles of nuclear fission in 19391 (p.59). Their discovery, which is still considered “one of the greatest discoveries of the century”1 (p.59), almost seven decades later, was worthy of recognition, such as the Nobel Prize, which Otto Hahn received in 1944 “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”2. Meitner’s contribution to the understanding and explanation of nuclear fission seemed to have been overlooked by the Nobel committee, although most of the physicists of the time believed that she should have received the Nobel Prize, too1 (p.60).

Although the political atmosphere of Germany at the time was not favourable to Meitner, she is certainly not a rare example of women omitted from important awards or  scientific papers simply for being women. The fact that she was not the only woman to find herself written off and overshadowed by male scientists, despite having significantly contributed to numerous scientific discoveries, isn’t surprising. Just like Meitner, many women scientists have been demeaned countless times. They are usually not mentioned at all, or are reduced to the role of mere assistants who perform mainly routine tasks that don’t require much intellectual effort3 (p.327). At the same time, their male counterparts are elevated, acclaimed and celebrated for their alleged inherent genius.

Several studies4,5 focusing on the sexist nature of the process of evaluation and recognition provide evidence that women’s work is often reduced to a secondary position in science, as it is perceived as less valuable and relevant than the work produced by their male colleagues. Sadly, this kind of androcentric view is not present solely in the field of science, nor is restricted to men. As studies6,7 have shown, the degradation of women’s capabilities through the devaluation of their works and contributions derives from both 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”8 (p.33). She then goes on to explain 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 and women with family and arts, an unexpected result given that she is a scientist, as well as a mentor and advocate for women in science8 (p.33). However, when we look at the results obtained on the IAT, the numbers confirm the existing bias: among hundreds of thousands of citizens from 34 different countries, 70% associated science more with males than with females9 (p.10593). These beliefs are the consequence of – 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 (although in a disproportionate way), the factors which dictate one’s status, such as the number of citations10 (p.2), the evaluation of one’s scholarly research and prestigious awards11 (p.2-3) do not reflect the demographic data. Women are present, yet not acknowledged.

1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics. Photograph by Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels, Belgium. Marie Curie is the only woman in the photo.

This sort of discrimination (which is implemented as a habitual process so widely accepted that it is almost completely invisible) was identified by Margaret Rossiter (1993), an American historian of science, and named the Matilda effect in honour of American suffragette and women’s rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898). The term refers to the systematic underrepresentation of women, the denial of their contributions to research, and the repeated attribution of their merits to their male counterparts12. The name makes reference to Robert K. Merton’s concept of the Matthew effect, so named after Matthew the Apostle: “For whomsoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whomsoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”12 (p.325, citing the Gospel According to Matthew, 13:12). The term was coined in 1968 to refer 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 on their own)”12 (p.326); the effect’s name is especially suitable, since Matthew himself did not write the gospel: “It was not written until two or three generations after his death”12 (p.326).

This system of unequal “accumulation of advantage”12 (p.326) has been present for ages, and is still very common nowadays. Researchers6,10 find its explanation in role congruity theory, which focuses on the coherence between constructed gender roles and other socially constructed roles, as in the case of the scientist role. This 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”10 (p.3). In a study published in 20166, the authors determined that women are still perceived as lacking the competencies required to be an acknowledged scientist6 (p.1), which suggests that the Matilda effect is still a frequent phenomenon in the scientific world.

The Matilda effect’s continued presence opens up a wide-ranging debate that goes beyond the question of the woman-scientist identity and includes issues 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”12 (p. 328)

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.



  1. Bertsch McGrayne, Sharon (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press.
  2. “All Nobel Prizes in Chemistry” (2014), Nobel Prize, Nobel Media AB, <> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).
  3. Sime, Ruth Lewin (1997), Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.
  4. Heilman, Madeline E. / 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.
  5. Wanneras, Christine / Agnes Wold (1997), “Nepotism and sexism in peer-review”, Nature, 387, 341-343.
  6. Carli, Linda L. / Laila Alawa / YoonAh Lee / Bei Zhao / Elaine Kim (2016), “Stereotypes About Gender and Science: Women ≠ Scientists”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1-17.
  7. Steinpreis, Rhea E. / Katie A. Anders / 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.
  8. Raymond, Jennifer (2013), “Sexist Attitudes: Most of us are biased”, Nature, 495, 33-34.
  9. 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.
  10. Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia / Carroll J. Glynn (2011), “The Matilda Effect – Role Congruity Effects on Scholarly Communication: A Citation Analysis of Communication Research and Journal of Communication Articles”, Communication Research, XX (X), 1-24.
  11. Lincoln, Anne E. / Stephanie Pincus / Janet Bandows Koster / 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.
  12. Rossiter, Margaret W. (1993), “The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science”, Social Studies of Science, 23, 325-341.


Author: Mateja Filipović-Sandalj
Release Date: 10 January 2017