Lost Women of Science Podcast Reveals the Untold Story of Why Physicist Lise Meitner Was Denied the Nobel Prize for Her Pioneering Work on Splitting the Atom
The first episode airs today and the second on September 14.
What is the Matilda Effect?
BY LISA LAMM
PUBLISHED ON 10 FEB 2023 AT 13:13 CET
In 1945, Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering nuclear fission. His colleague of many years, the physicist Lise Meitner, got nothing - even though her knowledge and her work were essential for the award-winning discovery.
Lise Meitner is not alone with this omission. Numerous women scientists have suffered the same fate throughout history: their achievements have been forgotten, sidelined or ignored in the history of science. This systematic discrimination is so widespread that it even has a name: the Matilda effect.
The phenomenon is named after the American suffragette, activist and sociologist Matilda Joslyn Gage. In 1870, she wrote a pamphlet entitled Woman as Inventor , condemning the then-widespread idea that women lacked inventive drive and scientific talent: “Such statements are made lightly or ignorantly. Tradition, history and experience prove that women possess these abilities to the highest degree,” the essay says.
About a hundred years later, this pamphlet fell into the hands of the historian Margaret Rossiter, who has since processed the achievements of forgotten women scientists in several books. In a 1993 essay entitled The Matilda Effect in Science, she referred to Gage and christened the phenomenon of the neglected female scientist with her name. "Recent work has brought to light so many historical and contemporary cases of women scientists who have been ignored, denied credit, or otherwise overlooked that a gender-linked phenomenon appears to be at play here," Rossiter wrote at the time.
And indeed: the problem runs deep. "Often it's the Nobel Prize that a woman scientist doesn't get, but it's much more than that," says Katie Hafner, journalist and executive producer of the podcast project Lost Women of Science . “It's about not being named in a study; to be just an asterisk or a footnote.” In the Lost Women of Science database , she says, there are hundreds of women scientists who fell victim to the Matilda Effect. "The problem that the recognition only goes to men has existed for an extremely long time," says Hafner. "It really is a tragedy."
Lise Meitner is also about more than just the Nobel Prize. Although her parents – especially her father – supported her all her life, as a Jewish scientist she had to work harder for her position in science than her male colleagues. When Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1945, not only was she not honored, she was also in exile in Stockholm.
The extent of the importance of Meitner's research for the discovery of nuclear fission was not known for a long time. "But if you look at the correspondence between Hahn and Meitner, you can see that he actually understood very little about physics," says Hafner. The author Marissa Moss has dealt with this fact and tells the story of Lise Meitner's fight for her place in the history of science in The Woman who split the Atom . The book also takes up her commitment to nuclear peace and her horror at what her discovery was finally used for – again by other men .
But where did this lack of consideration for the work of women scientists come from? "I would say it's because women have long been in positions where they couldn't act as study authors," says Hafner. That has slowly changed in the last few decades. Before that, female scientists were mostly only given assistant positions or worked as secretaries and were not appointed deans or chair holders. In addition, they often had to take on the role of housewife and mother and were generally taken less seriously than their male colleagues.
Another factor, according to Hafner, is that many women worked with their husbands, who were also scientists, and while doing so, often did important work, it didn't end up being recognized—the achievements were attributed to their husbands or colleagues.
In the past, an incorrect understanding of science probably also played a role. "Science is a community effort, and knowledge is passed from one generation to the next," says Hafner on a Lost Women of Science podcast episode . For a long time, however, the so-called Great Man Theory prevailed, which describes the idea that history is mainly determined by individuals, mostly men.
In this sense, groundbreaking scientific achievements were for a long time attributed to only one scientist or a small group of scientists - these were also mostly men. "Science is extremely collaborative," says Hafner. The fact that many more women were involved in this interaction than was long recognized is only slowly coming to light.
For example, in the case of the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell , who discovered so-called pulsars, i.e. pulsating radio sources of a neutron star, in 1967. The Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 went to her doctoral supervisor Antony Hewish, who did research together with Bell Burnell, but was ultimately awarded the prize alone for the discovery of the astrophysicist. The microbiologist Esther Lederberg was also denied a Nobel Prize in favor of her husband and two other colleagues. In 1958, Joshua Lederberg, George Wells Beadle and Edward Tatum won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Esther Lederberg, who led the important research on genetic recombination and the bacterial genome, just sat in the audience.
Despite enormous progress in the field of gender equality in research in recent decades, the Matilda effect is still relevant today: Nobel Prize winners are still mainly white and male, especially in the STEM categories, i.e. mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. And even apart from the Nobel Prize, the effect can still be seen today. While women struggled to be taken seriously at the time, remnants of the misogynist view of yesteryear can still be seen today.
This can be measured by the so-called Gender Citation Gap. This states: Male researchers are cited disproportionately often in scientific papers, while female researchers are left out. "The Matilda effect is surprisingly persistent, even though the proportion of women is increasing significantly at all academic career levels," says Malte Steinbrink, Chair of Anthropogeography at the University of Passau and co-author of a recent study that examines the Matilda effect in human geography researched. The results will be published this year in the specialist magazine GW-Lehr .
With his colleagues Philipp Aufenvenne, Christian Haase and Max Pochadt, he examined the differences in the frequency with which women and men are cited in scientific papers. The results of the study are clear: "In German human geography, the citation rate for women is almost 40% lower," says Aufenvenne. It's similar in other disciplines.
The research team sees one of the problems in unconscious biases: "In science, this is discussed under the approach of the role congruity theory . The image of the 'male' scientist continues to shape society,” say the researchers. In terms of research, this theory suggests that people perceive men as more competent in science because they fit into the image they already have of a "typical" scientist: white and male. Studies show , for example, that the work of male authors is still often taken more seriously than that of women - a circumstance that makes the work of female scientists invisible.
According to Steinbrink, this so-called gender bias exists in both men and women: both sexes cite scientists disproportionately more often than women scientists – so the unconscious prejudices often do not stop at the women scientists themselves.
In order to compensate for the inequality in research, various points must be addressed: on the one hand, female scientists who have not been recognized in the past must be made visible, and on the other hand, there must be a greater awareness of inequalities in current research. “In our opinion, educational policy measures are particularly suitable. It has to be about raising awareness and questioning one’s own citation and reading practice,” says Steinbrink. This must already begin in school education: "Our assumption is that if more women were read, they would also be quoted more," adds Aufenvenne.
Katie Hafner is primarily concerned with coming to terms with past failures. "When girls and young women see that there's a whole sea of women who came before them and did amazing scientific work, that's normalized historically," she says. That is what Margaret Rossiter intended when she named the Matilda effect: to complete the history of science. This is the only way to make current and future contributions by women in science visible.
The first episode airs today and the second on September 14.
You wouldn’t know it from the film, but many women were involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II.