From Rosalind Franklin, whose fundamental contributions to the double helix model for DNA were overshadowed by Watson and Crick, to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who’s vital role in discovering pulsars was not rewarded with a Nobel prize (which went instead to her male PhD supervisor) women scientists throughout history have gone unacknowledged—not only in their own time but also in our contemporary telling of events.
The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, one of the most popular sources of information on the internet, with 500m unique visitors each month, is a key way in which these histories are being defined—and possibly used as a vehicle for change. But currently, 90 per cent of Wikipedia’s volunteer base—the 140,000 people worldwide who regularly edit and maintain the encyclopaedia’s pages—are men. Entries for female scientists are often mere “stubs,” a few lines of information lacking biographical or scientific detail.
On 25th July, what would have been Franklin’s 93rd birthday, Wikimedia (the organisation that oversees Wikipedia) and the Medical Research Council launched their series of “edit-a-thon” events: day long seminars aiming to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of female scientists and add more women to their demographically-skewed editing community.
By increasing the quantity and quality of Wikipedia content about women scientists from the past and present, the project hopes to ensure that these individuals are more celebrated and become identifiable role models for would-be scientists today. Entries might include lesser-known but historically-influential women such as developmental biologist Rosa Beddington, who uncovered new intricacies in the development of mammalian embryos, and biologist Brigid Balfour, who pushed forward the study of cellular structure in relation to immune function.
Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics and a gender equality champion at the University of Cambridge, spoke about the problems facing women in science today—as in many professional fields, she said, they include a lack of confidence, lack of mentors and relatable role models, unconscious biases built into the academic and scientific research communities, and poor resources for childcare and family support. Just 13 per cent of those working in STEM occupations—Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (including health occupations)—are women. In academia, Donald identified the “leaky pipeline”—where the proportion of females at the undergraduate to the tenured professor level shows a huge drop—as a big problem in science.
The “edit-a-thons” are only one of a variety of creative solutions proposed by Donald and others involved in promoting gender equality in the scientific disciplines. Increased awareness and openness, and access to historical information, are important, in addition to more formal and informal mentorship within scientific communities.
As a female studying neuroscience at university and hoping to pursue a career in the scientific field, this is a topic that holds particular relevance for me. I tried my hand at Wikipedia editing and ended up discovering all sorts of awards, honours and field-defining research to add to the pages of female scientists, including Helen Neville, an important American psychologist and neuroscientist whose Wikipedia page was undeservedly brief. It felt good to know I had linked readers to this woman’s work and achievements—achievements she has earned and which ought to be shared with the world alongside those of men.