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Today and every day we salute you: the brilliant, invisible women of science

We recently asked a class of first-year students, most of them young women, to think of a scientist, writes Siouxsie Wiles. And who do you think they chose?

Today was the day to wear red. It’s a colour I mostly avoid because it clashes with my pink hair, but it wasn’t the day for worrying about that. Because March 8 is International Women’s Day. One day to celebrate the many and varied contributions of women to the world we live in, and to highlight that gender parity still isn’t a thing, despite us living in the 21st century.

Before anyone asks when International Men’s Day is (it’s in November), or why we need a day to celebrate women, because the past is the past and we’ve come so far, and what are we all complaining about, things could be so much worse … According to Wikipedia, the first Women’s Day was more than a century ago, in New York in 1909. We’ve spent more than 100 years celebrating the contributions of women, yet the World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won’t close entirely for another 170 years – not till 2186. Can you see now why we need an International Women’s Day?

Recently, my colleague Kate Hannah and I did an exercise with our new class of first year undergraduates. Almost two-thirds of our class are young women, excited to be starting their science degrees. We asked our class to clear their minds and then think of a scientist. It could be a person, or characteristics of a person, or they could draw a person. Who do you think they named or drew? Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford, that’s who. They were the scientists who first sprang to mind for almost half our class. Others named Isaac Newton, Jacques Cousteau, Tim Berners-Lee, Alan Turing, Oliver Sacks, Alexander Fleming, Robert Hooke and Richard Feynman. Thankfully, it wasn’t all men. Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin got a mention too.

But reading the names the students had scribbled on their Post-it notes, it did feel as though women are invisible. How many people know that Einstein met his first wife, Mileva Maric, while studying and that she got better grades than he did? But at the oral exam, she was awarded less than half the marks of Einstein and the other male students. Despite not being awarded her degree, she and Einstein worked together on special relativity. At some point, though, Maric became what was expected of women in those days, a mother who looked after the children while her husband the genius was off doing science and having affairs.

Clockwise from left: Kathleen Curtis, Edith Farkas, Pérrine Moncrieff, Rosemary Askin

The exercise with our class got me Googling for some of New Zealand’s invisible scientists. Have you heard of geologist Rosemary Askin? In 1970, she became the first New Zealand woman to have her own research programme in Antarctica. She even has a mountain named after her (Mount Askin in the Darwin Mountains). How about Edith Farkas, another Antarctic researcher, whose work helped find the hole in the ozone layer? Our first field guide for identifying New Zealand birds was written by ornithologist Pérrine Moncrieff. Without her we wouldn’t have the Abel Tasman National Park either. Mycologist (fungi expert) Kathleen Curtis was a founding member of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson and the first woman fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. And Joan Dingley, another mycologist, had about 30 species of fungi named dingleyae after her.

The story that saddened me the most though, was of bacteriologist and pathologist Constance Helen Frost. She graduated from the University of Otago Medical School in 1900 and was offered an honorary position at Auckland Hospital, an appointment that was renewed each year when no man could be found to replace her. It wasn’t until 1918 that the position became full time and she was paid £500 a year. Alas, she died of flu in 1920. Within two years the position became the second highest paid at the hospital and the man who replaced her was earning £1,000 a year.

Rosemary, Edith, Pérrine, Kathleen, Joan, Constance. We see you and we salute you.

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