In June 2015, Sir Tim Hunt was reviled for being perceived to be in favour of gender-segregated labs on the grounds that ‘girls’ cause men to fall in love with them, and cry when criticized. His comment, whether or not it reflected his actual opinion, cost the Nobel Prize winner his honorary professorship at UCL, and his position on the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. More recently online, The Review argued that campaigning for women in STEM was unnecessary. Gender gaps in different professions, the editorial contends, can often be a matter of biology. Gender is a factor in determining why we study what we study, and blindly incentivizing students to pursue STEM subjects may distort the job market in the longer term.
But what we’re increasingly seeing is that failing to encourage women to pursue these careers can be equally damaging to the job market. In the short term the UK could find itself in the position of Australia, struggling to address the 600,000 strong STEM skills shortage. On a broader scale, a report released by the European Commission in 2013 estimated that if as many women as men worked in ICT, European GDP would be boosted annually by around €9 billion – therefore showing that failing to attract, and retain, women in this sector has negative consequences for the entire economy. In terms of the advancement of science, the research community could have missed out on the talents of Dr Sarah Noble, featured last week on the blog, Christina Richey, Planetary Science Division Program Officer at NASA, Liu Yang, pilot and astronaut who became the first Chinese woman in space, Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, selected as the next director general of CERN, Maryam Mirzakhani, who won the Fields medal in 2014, and so many more.
The science community might also have missed out on the work of Professor Lucy Carpenter, this year’s winner of the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, which was celebrated yesterday as part of the Royal Society’s Anniversary Day. Professor Carpenter specializes in atmospheric chemistry, studying the controls and mechanisms responsible for the release of a wide range of oceanic gases, many at concentrations around a trillionth of nitrogen and oxygen (hence named ‘trace gases’). This type of research is vital to understand the Earth’s atmosphere, how it affects our health and climate, and how our atmosphere responds to natural and human activities. Above all, Professor Lucy Carpenter was chosen for this award not only for the outstanding quality of her work, but also for her suitability as a role model and her project proposal to promote women in STEM.
The award is named after Rosalind Elsie Franklin, the English chemist who immensely contributed to our current understanding of the structure of DNA. The controversy surrounding the amount of credit due to Franklin continues and was brought to light most recently in Nicole Kidman’s depiction of her in a West End production.
What is certain, however, is that her meaningful work in learning about the structure of DNA was never publicly rewarded: she was beaten to the publication of her X-Ray photographs of DNA and work on the DNA structure in part because of her frictions with Maurice Wilkins. Later, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 was awarded jointly to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.
Photo 51: X-ray diffraction image of DNA obtained by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling in 1952. The pattern triggered the idea that two strands of DNA ran in opposite directions, forming a helix.
Without doubt, this helps to highlight the importance of awards and schemes, such as those championed by the Royal Society, in supporting the development of female scientists, recognising their achievements and instilling them with the confidence to pursue lines of research that could lead to the next major scientific breakthrough.