WOMEN IN STEM: A COMPARATIVE CASE STUDY

A 1996 USA study suggested that girls begin to lose self-confidence because they believe that men possess more intelligence in the technological fields.

Isn’t that a worrying thought?

So while the statistics have improved for women in various career fields over the past few decades, especially in the last one owing to the numerous women-centric drives such as #TimesUp, #MeToo, and the movement to reduce the gender pay gap, there is still a long way to go for the effects of these to reflect in the area of women in STEM. Let’s take a look at how the conditions and barriers have changed for them through two case studies.

Case Study: Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner, born on November 7, 1878, was an Austria-born physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. She along with the chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann led the small group of scientists who discovered the uranium nuclear fission when it absorbed an extra neutron. Their research helped pioneer nuclear reactors to generate electricity as well as the development of nuclear weapons during World War II.

Meitner was particularly drawn to math and science even at age 8 and eventually went on to become the second woman to obtain a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna in 1905. She went on to study in Berlin where Ma Planck allowed her to attend his lectures, which was an unusual gesture on his part as he had rejected any and all women wanting to attend his lectures.

Lies Meitner had two major difficulties. She was a Jew living in exile in Sweden, and she was a woman, and both proved insurmountable. When the Nazis took over, she was forced to leave Germany where she was working as Hahn’s academic equal. She took a position in Stockholm and continued to work through regular correspondence, and though not ideal, this was still highly productive, barium discovery being its latest fruit. And yet when the time came to publish, Hahn published it without her name included in the paper, solely because he knew that including a Jewish woman’s name on the paper would cost him his career. Hahn, obviously, had trouble explaining his own findings, but Meitner had the explanation and wrote the famous fission letter to the editor explaining the mechanism of “Hahn’s Discovery”. But in spite of it all, the Nobel committee awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Hahn alone for “discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei even though the word fission never appeared in Hahn’s original publication, as Meitner had been the first to coin it in the letter that she published afterward. This has often been dubbed as the “Nobel mistake”, and was partly rectified in 1966 when she along with Hahn and Fritz Strassmann were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. The heaviest element has been recently named Meitnerium in her honour.

Case Study: Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn, born on November 26, 1948, is an American Australian Nobel laureate who is the former president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Blackburn attended the University High School and went on to earn Bachelor's and Master of Science by 1972. She then received her Ph.D. in 1975 from Cambridge University, where she worked with Frederick Sanger developing methods to sequence DNA using RNA, and also studying the bacteriophage Phi X 174. During her postdoctoral work at Yale, she was doing research on the protozoan Tetrahymena thermophile and noticed a repeating codon at the end of linear rDNA and that it varied in size. After various other related experiments, the 1985 discovery lead to the purification of the transferase-like enzyme, which solved the end-replication process that had troubled the scientists at the time.

For their research and contributions to the understanding of telomeres and the enzyme telomerase, Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostaks were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The substantial research on the effects of chromosomal protection from telomerase and the impact this has on cellular division has been a revolutionary catalyst in the field of molecular biology. Blackburn was appointed a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2002. She supported human embryonic cell research, in opposition to the Bush Administration. Her Council terms were terminated by White House directive on 27 February 2004. Blackburn believes that she was dismissed from the Council due to her disapproval of the Bush administration’s position against stem cell research. Scientists and ethicists at the time even went as far as to say that Blackburn’s removal was in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, which “requires balance on such advisory bodies”.

Here, we see two cases of women in STEM which are almost a hundred years apart. Lise Meitner was wrongfully denied what was hers. She even was vocal about it, going against societal norms of the time, but was eventually shut down and ignored, and only compensated when she was almost at her death bed. Whereas, Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize and is able to be vocal about the discriminations she faces with a lot of people rallying behind her. She has the platform and power to bring about changes and is definitely doing so. While the topic of why she is still facing discrimination for being a woman is a woe for another day, it is good to acknowledge the advancements that have led to this juncture in the science and technology field for women.