Author Robyn Arianrhod On Bias Against Women In Science

  • October 18, 2012

The author of Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution provides a historical perspective on an all-too-real problem.

A new study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that bias against female students continues in science, despite efforts to attract and retain more women into science and engineering fields. The study garnered media attention, including a report by The New York Times, and the Times also featured a “Room for Debate” discussion about the issue. Bias against women in science appears throughout literature, from Tracy Chevalier’s novel Remarkable Creatures to the story of Marie Sharp, who helped map the ocean floor, as told in Hali Felt’s Soundings (which we recently reviewed). Below, author and scientist Robyn Arianrhod provides an additional perspective, informed by research for her latest book: Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution.

by Robyn Arianrhod

The Yale researchers’ conclusion that the bias against female science students is unconscious – together with earlier research that uncovered the same kind of bias in non-scientific disciplines – suggests that what we’re dealing with here is systemic.

One way to dispel this negative assumption about women’s scientific capacity is to explore its historical roots. Such an exploration has long been part of the feminist agenda, and it is still important to find historical examples that counter the bias, to offer portraits of women who against great odds attempted to make a significant contribution to science. My own journey to becoming a mathematician was guided by such role models, whose stories are not only inspiring, but also highlight some of the historical sources of gender bias.

One of the earliest women to succeed in “modern” higher mathematics was Émilie du Châtelet, who was born in 1706, when girls’ education was limited, even for daughters of the aristocracy. They were educated by governesses or in convents, and were not allowed to attend academic schools and universities. The marquise du Châtelet was in her mid-twenties when she decided to study higher mathematics, and she could afford to hire one of the best young Parisian mathematicians to tutor her. Nevertheless, hers was an incredibly ambitious project, given that her entry-level mathematical knowledge was equivalent to that of today’s junior high school students. Indeed, this project was audacious not only because of the lack of equal educational opportunities, but also because it went far beyond the accepted bounds of what female ambition should be.  (There is still some social unease about ambitious women today, which could help explain the Yale findings.) Molière, for one, ridiculed the femme savante (or “learned woman”) as pretentious, suggesting her knowledge was at best superficial. Even after du Châtelet had become famous as a leading French exponent of the cutting-edge mathematical physics of Newton and Leibniz the stereotype lingered. She was also the target of a malicious diatribe from Paris’s most powerful salonnière, who mercilessly exaggerated her physical flaws. The notion that intellectual women are unattractive – particularly those in the sciences – has a long history and persists today. Such entrenched biases become internalised, affecting girls’ confidence and performance, which in turn contributes to the external perception that women are not as capable as men.

My second role model is Mary Somerville, the semi-literate Scottish girl who rose to become the nineteenth century’s “Queen of Science.” Her story is truly astonishing, given that she was almost entirely self-taught and persevered alone for many years. By the end of the eighteenth century, the situation for women in science had actually deteriorated. Advances in biology had exaggerated the awareness of sex differences, and to such an extent that it was considered medically dangerous for women, with their smaller brains and their childbearing, to exert themselves intellectually. Young Mary doubted this advice, but nonetheless her confidence was undermined by the mainstream view that women were innately intellectually inferior.

Despite their courage and their intelligence, I believe that Mary Somerville and Émilie du Châtelet – and other pioneers, like the world’s first professional female physics professor, Laura Bassi, Émilie’s Italian contemporary – would not have succeeded without male mentors. Bassi had a supportive scientist-husband, and Mary Somerville eventually found a supportive husband and scientific friends. Émilie du Châtelet had a supportive husband and an even more supportive lover, Voltaire,  who not only encouraged her advancement in mathematics and physics but also defended her reputation as a wife and mother against the criticism that she paid more attention to science than to her family! Expectations of mothers are still higher than of fathers; certainly, shared parenting is crucial if women are to succeed in scientific professions. This, along with confidence-building, mentoring, role models, and an understanding of the history of women’s oppression – of the baggage we still carry – would all contribute to consigning the old biases to the junk heap of history.

Dr Robyn Arianrhod is a writer and a mathematician. She is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Monash University School of Mathematical Sciences (where she taught for many years); her research interests include mathematical general relativity theory and the history of science. Her book Einstein’s Heroes has been translated into several languages, and her second book, Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution, has recently been published by OUP.

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