The Matilda Effect: When Women In STEM Are Sidelined Due To Gender Bias

The Matilda Effect is attributing the credit for the work by women in STEM to their male counterparts, due to gender bias.

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The Matilda Effect: When Women In STEM Are Sidelined Due To Gender Bias

Time and again, we have heard stories of people’s credits related to their inventions being stolen by others within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field. This is known as the Matthew effect. However, there is a very specific bias also related to the same, when gender comes into the picture. This is known as the Matilda effect, where women inventors’ credits for a particular invention are taken away by their male counterparts.

The term Matilda comes from the name of Matilda.J.Gage, a feminist activist, who first coined the term addressing the lack of recognition for women scientists in an article she wrote titled “Woman as Inventor”. This often relates to benevolent sexism where women are expected to perform tasks that are considered ‘feminine’ like social work and nursing whereas, ‘masculine’ tasks like working in STEM are reserved for men. 

Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA. Or rather, we have been taught that. But the actual discovery was made by Rosalind Franklin, a British woman scientist whose credit was taken away by the former male scientists. She discovered a groundbreaking image of the DNA structure that Watson and Crick used without giving due credit, thus solely attaching their names to the discovery. 

Systemic patriarchy acts as an obstacle for women like Franklin to speak up against such instances. Nettie Stevems, an American geneticist, discovered the sex chromosomes. She had to unfortunately work very hard to get into the field of science in the first place, and furthermore, her role, although was crucial in the discoveries related to sex determination, was hardly given credit for.

In recent times, however, the number of women in STEM has increased and so has the recognition of the importance of the intellectual property. Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier; other women scientists like Uma Chowdhry and Cynthia Breazeal, have made a name for themselves in the field and have garnered success.

It is thus clear that the condition for contemporary women in STEM although better is far from perfect. Women still face discrimination and bias which restricts their access to resources and thereby, their success in the field. To battle such issues, instead of encouraging women to ‘speak up’ or ‘open up’ against the injustices they face in the field and making it an individual’s issue (which it is not), we must address the systemic barriers that majority of women face like harassment and plagiarism, thus safeguarding them from further unfairness

It is, however, important to consider that systemic issues such as this do not get solved in a few years. The AAMC conducted a study where they discovered that the dropout rate for women in medicine was very high, with 50.9 percent of the applicants and 51.6 percent of the matriculants only constituting 47.9 percent of the graduates, which is lower than that of men. The reason for their dropout is usually because, for them, the possibility of getting a leadership position is significantly lesser, or simply skewed due to workplace discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault.

In the case of credibility, a research study was conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School, where it was found that subjects garnered interest in abstracts of articles based on the gender of the author, whereas research by male authors was considered more credible than those by their female counterparts. Another study by Eaton et. al. showed how male candidates scored more than women in terms of competence and hireability, where the former scored 7.18 and the latter scored 6.66 on a scale of 9.

Additionally, there was a specific research study conducted by Patel et. al. on the ‘Underrecognition of Women in Haematology and Oncology Awards,’ where it was stated, “From 1994 to 2019, women were less likely to receive recognition awards from the seven major H&O societies studied compared with men. We also observed a considerably low proportion of minority awardees across all oncology subspecialties. Further studies examining how selection criteria favour either gender would be warranted to achieve equal representation in academic awards.” 

Also read: Women In STEM: In Conversation With Dr Manjari Jain

It is thus clear that the condition for contemporary women in STEM although better is far from perfect. Women still face discrimination and bias which restricts their access to resources and thereby, their success in the field. To battle such issues, instead of encouraging women to ‘speak up’ or ‘open up’ against the injustices they face in the field and making it an individual’s issue (which it is not), we must address the systemic barriers that the majority of women face like harassment and plagiarism, thus safeguarding them from further unfairness.

Given that several studies as mentioned above have found that the Matilda Effect has always been and still is in play, we must as a society take immediate steps to address it so that we can make sure every woman in STEM gets their credit whenever it is due, which will encourage more and more women to explore and garner success the field

Devine’s study shows how gender-neutral hiring in STEM can be made possible through intervention and gender training. After two years of attending gender intervention workshops, the study concluded that departments hired 18 percent more women, promising a better future for hiring women in academia and STEM. 

A group of 500 women scientists formed the Request a Woman in STEMM (Request), a platform that was established in 2018 owing to the mere frustration of the overrepresentation of men in the STEM field where only men were called as keynote speakers, panelists, experts, and quoted by the media.

It has a directory that contains a database of women scientists from around the world. The over-representation of men in STEM as depicted by the media also needs to change. Thus, they attempt to help people easily access the directory, so that more women can be called as panelists, keynote speakers, and so on for talks, news, etc., involving STEM.

Bond conducted a study where it was found that when women were represented stereotypically in television, there was a decreased interest in women in STEM whereas, longer periods of exposure to the counter-stereotypical depiction of women excelling in STEM fields led to an increase in the interest in women. 

Given that several studies as mentioned above have found that the Matilda Effect has always been and still is in play, we must as a society take immediate steps to address it so that we can make sure every woman in STEM gets their credit whenever it is due, which will encourage more and more women to explore and garner success the field.

Also read: 8 Women In STEM Who Made A Mark In 2021


Featured Image Source: Watchdogs Gazette