Matilda Effect and Underrepresentation of Women in Science

Dr. Sonam Chawla
Assistant Professor
Jaypee Institute of Information Technology , Sector 62, NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh-201309, India

The Matilda Effect refers to the historical and ongoing tendency to overlook, undervalue, or deny the contributions of women in various fields, particularly in science, while attributing similar ideas or accomplishments to their male counterparts. The term “Matilda Effect” was coined by science historian Margaret Rossiter in 1993, and it takes its name from suffragist and women’s rights advocate Matilda Joslyn Gage.

The Matilda effect highlights the systemic biases and gender discrimination that have affected the recognition and visibility of women’s achievements throughout history. Some prime examples of the Matilda Effect include cases where women’s work was ignored, downplayed, or credited to male colleagues. A notably prominent case is that of female scientist Rosalind Franklin, who played a critical role in the discovery of the DNA double helix. She was a British biophysicist and chemist who made significant contributions to the understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Her X-ray crystallography work played a crucial role in determining the helical structure of DNA.

However, Franklin’s contributions were often overshadowed and downplayed during her lifetime. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins showed her X-ray photographs to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used this information to build their famous model of the DNA double helix. Despite her essential role in providing key data, Franklin was not given due credit when Watson and Crick published their groundbreaking paper in 1953.

This case of the Matilda Effect became more apparent when Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their DNA model, while Franklin was not included. It wasn’t until later that Franklin’s work gained more recognition for its significance in the discovery of DNA’s structure. In recent years, efforts have been made to highlight her contributions and to acknowledge the biases that led to the Matilda Effect in her case and in the broader scientific community.

With the proposition of 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals the world is trying to balance opportunities and growth for all, and hence the SDG5, or Sustainable Development Goal 5 is a crucial step to once and for all get rid of Matilda Effect. SDG 5 focuses on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Achievement of SDG5 can facilitate eliminating historical and ongoing gender biases/discrimination that have hindered women’s recognition and participation in various fields, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. UN and several other social scientists projected global attainment of SDG 5 by the year 2030.

However, the latest data suggests that India, including other Eastern and South East Asian Countries have made no significant progress towards attaining SDG 5. A few issues that need to be addressed by the global STEM community to can pave the way for attainment of SDG5 are:

  1. Underrepresentation in Authorship: Women are often underrepresented as first authors or senior authors in scientific publications, which impacts their visibility and recognition for their contributions.
  2. Citation Disparities: Studies have shown that papers authored by women are cited less frequently than those authored by men. This citation bias can contribute to a lack of recognition for women’s work.
  3. Implicit Bias: Implicit biases affect how people evaluate the contributions of scientists. These biases can lead to women’s work being perceived as less significant or impactful, even when the quality is comparable to that of male scientists.
  4. Visibility and Awards: Women scientists tend to receive fewer prestigious awards and honors compared to their male counterparts, which can further perpetuate the gender gap in recognition and influence.
  5. Institutional Factors: Structural and systemic issues within academic and research institutions can contribute to gender disparities in recognition. These include biased promotion and tenure processes, lack of representation in decision-making roles, and unequal resource allocation.
  6. Cumulative Disadvantage: Gender disparities in recognition and credit accumulate over time, affecting career trajectories and opportunities for advancement.
  7. Intersectionality: The impact of gender disparities can be compounded when considering other factors like race, ethnicity, child bearing, family responsibilities and other forms of marginalization.

The author endorses systemic changes in academia and science to address gender disparities in recognition, credit, and overall representation to get rid of Matilda Effect and achieve SDG5 as soon as possible. It is imperative that we create an environment for our coming generations where all scientists are acknowledged and valued for their contributions, regardless of their gender.

Some notable works that can be referred for interested readers are:

  1. Ross MB, Glennon BM, Murciano-Goroff R, Berkes EG, Weinberg BA, Lane JI. Women are credited less in science than men. Nature. 2022 Aug;608(7921):135-145. doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-04966-w. Epub 2022 Jun 22. PMID: 35732238; PMCID: PMC9352587.
  2. Patel SR, St Pierre F, Velazquez AI, Ananth S, Durani U, Anampa-Guzmán A, Castillo K, Dhawan N, Oxentenko AS, Duma N. The Matilda Effect: Underrecognition of Women in Hematology and Oncology Awards. Oncologist. 2021 Sep;26(9):779-786. doi: 10.1002/onco.13871. Epub 2021 Jul 9. PMID: 34157172; PMCID: PMC8417845.
  3. Rosalind Franklin and the damage of gender harassment. harassment

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