Genetics is a young specialty and was organized when there were already growing numbers of women in science and medicine. It was possible, if still not actually easy, for younger women to find female scientist role models.
Dr. Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine my junior year in college. Those now in training or early career stages have no trouble pointing to internationally recognized women geneticists. On the other hand, in college genetics we learned about Hershey and Chase and their experiment proving DNA to be the heritable material, but not that Chase’s first name was Martha.
“Recognizing that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened,” in 2015, the United Nations and UNESCO declared February 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In 2021, the theme for celebration was “Women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19”. We could start that list with Dr. Katalin Kariko, who worked for years to prove the usefulness of the mRNA vaccines that are now saving lives around the world; and continue from other women basic scientists all the way to front line health care workers giving those vaccines.
We read frequently these days about the first woman to win an important recognition. She is the first female winner of a prestigious award. She is the first woman elected leader of her country. She is the first woman to be accepted into a rigorous program. As much as this is a celebration of the woman’s achievement, it is more a unfavorable comment on those who had left women off the list for so long. It is still necessary to anonymize applications in a variety of fields to give women and those identifying as female the same chance as males. The default remains to think of men first. “There is a posting going around social media asking who one would want narrating their life. Even the women name a man (I pick Helen Mirren).”
A few years ago, I worked with a medical dictionary to review and update their genetics-related entries. This dictionary has a number of two-line biographies of famous medical scientists. Only two were women. Not just in the genetics entries — in the entire tome there were only two women. One was Cornelia de Lange, after whom a genetic syndrome is named. The other was Marie Curie, who needs no introduction, and she was not even granted her own entry: she had to share it with her husband. This had to change. A call went out to women geneticists for a list of names.
There quickly emerged a roster of forty-nine women who had made major contributions to our field alone. These women are known for important genetic discoveries, for authoring text or reference books, for describing new syndromes that now bear their name, and for being tremendous teachers and mentors. It was and is also striking how many of these women are still discovering, authoring, describing, and teaching.
Positive Feedback Loop
These living role models may be more important than the pioneers. They can be mentors, collaborators, and colleagues in ways that historic figures cannot. Hopefully as more women are involved in science, there will be a positive feed-back loop. More women in STEM will be role models for the next generation, who will support the generation after that, and so on. Women will see female role models. Men will, too. This is how biases are abolished. This is how female names appear on candidate lists without the nominating committee actively seeking them.
When Dr. Sally Ride was the first US woman astronaut, I saved a newspaper letter-to-the-editor that pointed out that women will not have gained true equality until they can be astronauts, or supreme court justices, or ??? and nobody notices. To this I would add that women, and those identifying as female, will really have equity when their names appear on a list of famous scientists without someone having to incorporate them by conscious effort. Until that time, Molecular Syndromology would like to highlight the work of women in our field; to be conscious of including them so that someday we will include them unconsciously.