The great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin is cited as the father of the most unifying paradigm of biology: Evolution. But is it possible that the sexist ideologies of Darwin’s time are the root of the divisive social maladies that plague our society today? Since the age of Darwin, our society has (ironically) evolved to adopt its own culture of sexism. Men and women alike have adapted to an academic climate that perpetuates gender discrimination in social, economic, and political contexts across all disciplines–particularly in science.
Like all people, Charles Darwin was a product of his environment. Born into the Victorian Era, a time ravaged by oppressive patriarchal ideologies, Darwin complacently remarked that “women, though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities, are inferior intellectually” and “women’s brains are analogous to those of animals”. Although comments like these would be outrageous in modern times, they were actually the general consensus for the greater part of human history. Such ideologies are responsible for plaguing the promising careers of women like Rosalind Franklin, Nettie Stevens, and Esther Lederberg, despite the major contributions they made to the sciences during their lives.
Henrietta Leavitt, a leading figure in the field of cosmology during the 1800s, is a prime example of a promising female scientist who fell victim to the sexist ideology of her time. Her research on the period-luminosity relationship at the Harvard Observatory laid the framework for Edward Hubble’s major contributions in astrology and cosmology. Ironically, Leavitt received a mere 30 cents per hour for her efforts while Hubble was lauded as the father of cosmology for his “discovery” of the very same phenomenon, which he dubbed “Hubble’s Law”. Leavitt’s lack of recognition for this discovery stems from the Harvard Director’s refusal to grant her recognition for her work on the sole basis of her gender.
In the late 1800s, it was rare for women to pursue research careers due to the menial and repetitive nature of the jobs available to them. They were not encouraged to engage in their own research projects, so Leavitt’s discoveries were the result of her undying intellectual curiosity, even in the face of gender inequality throughout her career. Unfortunately, she is not alone, as she is just one of hundreds of women whose career was impeded by the sexist ideology of her time.
Though it was a struggle for women to be granted the right to publish their research and receive credit for it, sexism once again reared its ugly head in the realm of academia as women sought acceptance to research institutions across the globe during the early 1900s. Marie Curie, a renowned French physicist and chemist who conducted research on radioactivity, experienced this discrimination. She was a pioneer for women in the sciences due to her discovery of the radioactive nature of elements such as Radium and Polonium. For her discovery of the concept of radioactivity, she was awarded two nobel prizes to recognize her for the research she conducted. Despite her high credibility and intellectual capacity, Curie was rejected from the French Académie Des Sciences in 1911, the same year she won her second Nobel prize, only because she was a woman. This rejection further emphasized the prejudice women faced in science institutions across the globe, for Curie was just as qualified, if not more, than many of her male counterparts in the French Academie. It was not until 1962 that the first woman, one of Curie’s students, was accepted into the academy despite gender discrimination.
Sadly, these instances of institutionalized sexism are not vestiges of a bygone era.In 2015, renowned Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt infamously stated that 3 things happen when women are in the lab: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”. He then proposed gender segregated labs as a solution to this issue, as if Plessy v Ferguson’s “separate but equal” philosophy was successful in the past.
Despite sexism still having a place in our society today, the backlash Hunt faced for his remarks attests to the increased support women have garnered over the years. Our society is gradually evolving to be more supportive of women in STEM fields, but we must take a moment to ask ourselves: is it enough? How much longer until women can have access to the same opportunities, accolades, and resources as men ?
In an attempt to address these questions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is currently launching a program called STEM Equity Achievement Change (SEA Change) to gauge academic institutions on their inclusivity and equality in hiring, promoting,and retaining women and other marginalized groups in STEM fields. According to Shirley Malcom, director of education at AAAS, a pilot initiative will be launched in the US at 8 universities in which problem areas with respect to equality will first be identified, and then be improved through programs that work to boost student diversity, close pay gaps, and make the campus climate more supportive of equality among the sexes. Though SEA change is projected to yield promising results over the next decade, women in STEM like Renee Horton,president of the National Society of Black Physicists, caution against allowing the“deep rooted, prevailing and often unconscious prejudices that underlie inequality in the US”from tainting the progress of this initiative.
So yes, Charles Darwin WAS a product of his environment. But the converse can be just as easily true.To truly change our society, we must not complacently adapt to the hostile academic environments we have in classrooms, research labs, and other institutions globally; rather, we must evolve to become better students, friends, and mentors to BOTH men and women. In spite of our society’s institutionalized sexism, we must begin to evolve and deviate from our predecessors. We must adapt to an academic climate in which women’s ambitions are equally valued to men’s. We must be fair in recognizing women for their research as men are. We must work to unapologetically provide equal opportunities for women in all facets of STEM research and education.
By understanding that the ideology behind women’s “evolutionary inferiority” dates back to Darwin, change in our society today begins with “U”.