Women’s Hidden Contributions to Modern Genetics Get Revealed by New Study: No Longer Will They Be Buried in the Footnotes

It’s too easy, when our his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge is lim­it­ed, to mis­take effects for caus­es, to fall for just-so sto­ries that nat­u­ral­ize and per­pet­u­ate inequal­i­ty. Many of us may have only recent­ly learned, for exam­ple, that the moon land­ing would not have been pos­si­ble with­out math­e­mati­cian Kather­ine John­son and her Hid­den Fig­ures col­leagues, or that the Hub­ble tele­scope would not have been pos­si­ble with­out astronomer Nan­cy G. Roman (now immor­tal­ized in LEGO). Pri­or to this knowl­edge, we might have been led to believe that women had lit­tle to do with humankind’s first leaps into out­er space, to the sur­face of the moon, and beyond.

Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ri­an of sci­ence Mar­garet Rossiter has called this phe­nom­e­non “the Matil­da effect,” after an 1893 essay by suf­frag­ist Matil­da Joslyn Gage. Rossiter spent years try­ing to counter the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives that leave out women in sci­ence with a mul­ti-vol­ume schol­ar­ly his­to­ry. Counter-nar­ra­tives like hers now appear reg­u­lar­ly online. And pop­u­lar media like the book, then film, Hid­den Fig­ures have inspired oth­er aca­d­e­mics to drill into the his­to­ry of their fields, find the women who have been ignored, and try to under­stand the how and why.

When Brown University’s Emil­ia Huer­ta-Sánchez and San Fran­cis­co State University’s Rori Rohlfs saw Hid­den Fig­ures, they decid­ed to research their spe­cial­iza­tion, the­o­ret­i­cal pop­u­la­tion genet­ics. It may not be as glam­orous as space trav­el, and their research may not become a Hol­ly­wood film or LEGO set, but the results they unearthed are rev­e­la­to­ry and impor­tant. Dur­ing the 1970s, for exam­ple, “a piv­otal time for the field of pop­u­la­tion genet­ics,” notes Ed Yong at The Atlantic, the two researchers and their team of under­grad­u­ates found that “women account­ed for 59 per­cent of acknowl­edged pro­gram­mers, but just 7 per­cent of actu­al authors.”

Those women were sci­en­tists doing “cru­cial work,” writes Yong. One pro­gram­mer, Mar­garet Wu, cre­at­ed a sta­tis­ti­cal tool still reg­u­lar­ly used to cal­cu­late opti­mal genet­ic diver­si­ty. Her mod­el appeared in a 1975 paper and is now known as the Wat­ter­son esti­ma­tor, after the “one and only” named author, G.A. Wat­ter­son. “The paper has been cit­ed 3,400 times.” Today, “if a sci­en­tist did all the pro­gram­ming for a study, she would expect to be list­ed as an author.” But the prac­tice only began to change in the 1980s, when “pro­gram­ming began chang­ing from a ‘pink col­lar’ job, done large­ly by low-paid women, to the male-dom­i­nat­ed pro­fes­sion it remains today.”

The mar­gin­al­iza­tion of female pro­gram­mers dur­ing some of the field’s most pro­duc­tive years—their rel­e­ga­tion to lit­er­al foot­notes in history—has cre­at­ed the impres­sion, as Huer­ta- Sánchez, Rohlfs, and their co-authors write, that “this research was con­duct­ed by a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of inde­pen­dent indi­vid­ual sci­en­tists near­ly all of whom were men.” See a sum­ma­ry of the authors’ find­ings in the video above. To obtain their results, they combed through every issue of the jour­nal The­o­ret­i­cal Pop­u­la­tion Biol­o­gy—near­ly 900 papers—then pulled out “every name in the acknowl­edg­ments, worked out whether they did any pro­gram­ming, and deduced their gen­ders where pos­si­ble.”

The study, pub­lished in the lat­est issue of Genet­ics does not com­pre­hen­sive­ly sur­vey the entire field, nor does it defin­i­tive­ly show that every pro­gram­mer who con­tributed to a paper did so sub­stan­tive­ly enough to war­rant author­ship. But it does not need to do these things. The dis­par­i­ties between named authors and mar­gin­al­ly acknowl­edged sci­en­tif­ic labor­ers in a major jour­nal in the field calls for an expla­na­tion beyond selec­tion bias or chance. The expla­na­tion of sys­temic bias not only has the ben­e­fit of being well-sup­port­ed by a huge aggre­gate of data across the sci­ences, but it also presents us with a sit­u­a­tion that can be changed when the prob­lems are wide­ly seen and acknowl­edged.

The study’s results “dis­pel the mis­con­cep­tion that women weren’t par­tic­i­pat­ing in sci­ence,” the researchers point out in their video, and they sug­gest that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of women in genet­ics weren’t giv­en the cred­it they deserved. Huer­ta- Sánchez and Rohlfs walk their talk. The under­grad­u­ate researchers who worked on “Illu­mi­nat­ing Wom­en’s Hid­den Con­tri­bu­tion to His­tor­i­cal The­o­ret­i­cal Pop­u­la­tion Genet­ics” are all named as authors in the paper, so that their con­tri­bu­tions to writ­ing a new his­to­ry of their field can be rec­og­nized.

via The Atlantic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Women Philoso­phers: A New Web Site Presents the Con­tri­bu­tions of Women Philoso­phers, from Ancient to Mod­ern

Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks Gets Immor­tal­ized in a Por­trait: It’s Now on Dis­play at the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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