The forgotten women in the natural sciences

Book brings women in natural sciences to center stage

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The forgotten women in the natural sciences

You wouldn't think it from reading the history books, but over the centuries women have played an important role in the natural sciences. Often not officially allowed to work at a university, they sometimes published under a male pseudonym or had to watch as their male colleagues walked away with their results, or even in some cases the Nobel Prize. But all the while, they were making discoveries that to this day contribute to the building blocks of the natural sciences. To bring to center stage the women who were kept in the wings, endowed TU/e professor of science communication Margriet van der Heijden wrote the book Ongekend.

photo Natalia Kirienko / iStock

When Van der Heijden started studying physics in 1982 it wasn't long before she was the only girl in her year. There wasn't a single female student in the year groups above and below her. “And all the teachers and supervisors were men,” tells Van der Heijden, who for the past year has been an endowed professor at the Department of Applied Physics and Science Education. “Physics, math, chemistry, they were all regarded as subjects for men. This often promted the challenge: name one woman who's made an important discovery.

Van der Heijden went in search of women who had achieved something significant in physics. Along the way she discovered many more women than she had been expecting. A number of them are now included in Ongekend, her book published last week. “Actually, I could easily have produced a much longer collection.”


Van der Heijden's background is in particle physics. She did her doctoral research at CERN outside Geneva. Having completed a three-year stint as a postdoc at the same organization, she decided to move into science journalism. Her interest in women in physics continued, became a recurring theme in her work from 2013, when she wrote an opinion piece for the NRC, a Dutch national newspaper, which was prompted by national figures for women professors in various countries. The Netherlands was bringing up the rear. “I had more letters in response to that article than to any other. That motivated me to keep on with this work.” The series of portraits of women scientists that she later wrote for the same newspaper has now been collected in her book, along with additional portraits and an introduction

So women certainly have a history of being involved in the natural sciences. Why then don't we know about them? “Time and again you see women being forced into restrictive roles as subservient and caring individuals by society, roles they often internalize,” says Van der Heijden. In their youth women were trained for a life spent caring for others, says Van der Heijden. “When women were allowed to take part in academic life, they had to overcome all these prejudices.” It was also easy for men – whether intentionally or not – to take all the credit for joint discoveries. “In a highly competitive environment colleagues whose work you can easily claim as your own make tempting prey.”

Matilda effect

Another factor that touches on this is the Matilda effect, which the endowed professor describes in her book. “Then there's the Matthew effect. Someone who wins an award or grant has a greater chance of doing so again. It's generally something that happens to men not women. The Matilda effect is the reverse of this. Women's achievements are persistently underestimated. There will be comments like: Either she had a good supervisor, or apart from this she hasn't published anything.”

An example cited in Ongekend relates to Ben Barres, a scientist who transitioned from a woman to a man. When Barres gave a presentation as a man, someone said that he had given a fantastic presentation, and that his work was better than his ‘sister's’. “That says it all.”

"During the French Revolution, human rights meant the rights of men"

Margriet van der Heijden
endowed TU/e professor of science communication

Times have changed, especially because access to birth control now allows women to make other decisions, says Van der Heijden. Today there are more women in science, and together they have more power to wield. But the creation of an equal playing field for men and women in science hasn't all be steady progress, she knows. In her book, she goes back as far as the beginning of the18th century, when as the first female professor in Europe, Laura Bassi had to receive her students and colleagues at home because she was allowed to enter the university buildings only in exceptional circumstances. Bassi was a member of the Bolognese Academy of Sciences, a select group that would later permit women such as Émilie Du Châtelet and Maria Gaëtana Agnesi to join its ranks. “This was the first time in history that women managed to gain a foothold in the ‘modern’ university.”

In view of the obstacles, this would seem be a promising start for women in the natural sciences. However, all the progress was undone when the French Revolution came along. “During the revolution, human rights meant the rights of men. Women wrote pamphlets, but weren't heard. Napoleon denied women access to universities again in Bologna. The library where Bassi's work was held was burned to the ground.” Van der Heijden's message is that a period of progress doesn't herald the end of the struggle, even now. “Not that the progress made can ever be fully undone. There are now so many women in science and we've changed how we think about them so radically that we can rule out a complete return to the past.”

Important discoveries

Clearly, it was not easy for women to carve out positions for themselves in the natural sciences. But they were certainly there and were making important discoveries. There was Henrietta Leavitt, for example, working as a calculator at Harvard but allowed only to do routine work, while in her leisure hours she was developing a method later used by Hubble when he demonstrated the expansion of the universe. And June Almeida, a bus driver's daughter, who took a roundabout route to gain her doctorate and become the first person to visualize the first human coronavirus. They were resilient pioneers, says Van der Heijden. She also admires Mary Anning, whose formal education ended with primary school but who nevertheless ended up corresponding with the most famous paleontologists of her time.

Yet the purpose of her book is not to sing anyone's praises, she says emphatically. “I didn't want to write a book filled only with heroines. It also includes a portrait of Harriet Brooks, for example, who stopped when she got married. And of Grace Chisholm Young, who was quite happy for joint writings to be published only under her husband's name. I wanted to show the diversity of choices women make.” Above all, she wants to debunk the notion that there were no women in the natural sciences, and to paint a more realistic picture of history. “To say: see, they certainly were there.”

One year as professor

In December of last year Van der Heijden took up her position as endowed professor of science communication. “The year has flown by, mainly because I'm only here one day a week. Still, I've been able to set up a number of things.” Together with Ivo van Vulpen, who holds the same position in Leiden, she has obtained a grant that she'll use to run a summer school for early career physicists in the field of science communication. The pair also want to do a survey during the national Physics Days, asking what those in the field want to see in terms of science communication. “Then there's a smaller collaborative project on the subject of metaphors that I'm running. And I'm busy setting up my own line of research.”

While the precise nature of that research is not yet known, the research plan will be worked out in detail and the subject will certainly be topical, says Van der Heijden. In an interview posted on the TU/e website last year she underlined the importance of continuity in communication. “That's going to require checking whether communication achieves its aim. This step doesn't often happen at present. To give an example that's relevant to the book: suppose your aim is to get more girls choosing technical subjects. A wealth of past initiatives have tried to achieve this. Like women professors and researches visiting the classroom, for example. But research in the United Kingdom shows that these interventions have had little effect. You have to embed this kind of visit in a much broader project. That's going to involve other approaches, such as paying attention to the insecurities many girls have and encouraging teachers to give equal attention to boys and girls. How can this continuity be used effectively? That's the question I want to answer.”

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