Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day today I’m highlighting the role of some female lgbt scientists. I’ll present a separate post for those that tie in with the Ology of the Month in a couple of weeks.

The role women have in science still has the feel of it being secondary to that of men, but it seems things are changing. I have read many times during my research for this particular post of female scientists being overlooked in favour of less-qualified men for some top academic posts. For lesbian scientists there is double discrimination in some fields, and for ethnic lesbians triple discrimination.

There have only been a handful of female scientists who have become prominent. In the USA the National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) has five on it’s list of 14 “Queer Scientists of Historical Note” – S. Josephine Baker, Sonja Kovalevskaya, Margaret Mead, Florence Nightingale and Louise Pearce (I’ll be expressing my doubts about Florence Nightingale at a future date). The list also poses the question why there are so few lesbian scientists.

The struggle for the recognition of female scientists began to gain impetus in the general feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In America the Association of Women in Science (AWS) was founded in 1971 with the specific aim of challenging the male-dominated world of science. Co-founder of the AWS was Neena Schwartz, an endocrinologist at Northwestern University. All through her career, wherever she went, Neena experienced sexism but kept hidden the fact that she was also lesbian. She didn’t come out until she retired, revealing her sexuality in her autobiography “A Lab of My Own”. In it Neena told of the pain she went through when her partner died of cancer and how she couldn’t approach her work colleagues for support. Neena’s work as an endocrinologist helped to reveal the vital connections between the brain and reproductive organs. I’ll go into more detail about Neena’s work later in the year when my Ology of the Month in July will be Evolutionary Biology and Genetics.

Another pioneering lesbian, one who was more well-known during her work and who also hid her sexuality from the public throughout her career, was Sally Ride. In January I highlighted her work in science education and her place in history as the first American woman in space. Sally and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy did a lot of work in American schools. Since her death last year there has been an increase in interest in Sally’s life and work, if the internet is anything to go by.

It seems we are experiencing the beginning of a universal acceptance in academia of the role women and lesbians have in the sciences. This is illustrated by the number of scholarships being offered to the lgbt community. Gender studies has been around as an academic subject for several decades now, and is still a growing area of research, and surely this also helps to improve the awareness and acceptance of lgbt science students.

I had a quick look on the internet to see what scholarships are available to lesbian students. I found this page on the Scholarships For Women website. Even though all of the scholarships they mention are US based I’m sure there are similar ones in other countries. Most of the scholarships are open to all lgbt students but there are several specifically aimed at lesbians. The are also mostly non-science-based though PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gay) offer five scholarships in science and engineering.

Hopefully the access to scholarships such as these will encourage young women and lesbians to study science subjects. Until they graduate and enter the top levels of their chosen professions we have just a few out lesbian scientists as role models. Maybe it’s because there are few out at the top that their place as role models is all that more important.

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