Paving the Way for Women in Science and Health Professions


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(a) Barbara McClintock’s work on maize genetics in the 1930s through 1950s resulted in the
discovery of transposons, but its significance was not recognized at the time. (b) Efforts to appropriately
mentor and to provide continued societal support for women in science and medicine may someday help
alleviate some of the issues preventing gender equality at all levels in science and medicine. (credit a :modification of work by Smithsonian Institution; credit b: modification of work by Haynie SL, Hinkle AS, Jones NL, Martin CA, Olsiewski PJ, Roberts MF)

OpenStax Microbiology

Historically, women have been underrepresented in the sciences and in medicine, and often their pioneering contributions have gone relatively unnoticed. For example, although Rosalind Franklin performed the X-ray diffraction studies demonstrating the double helical structure of DNA, it is Watson and Crick who became
famous for this discovery, building on her data. There still remains great controversy over whether their acquisition of her data was appropriate and whether personality conflicts and gender bias contributed to the delayed recognition of her significant contributions. Similarly, Barbara McClintock did pioneering work in maize (corn) genetics from the 1930s through 1950s, discovering transposons (jumping genes), but she was not recognized until much later, receiving a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.

Today, women still remain underrepresented in many fields of science and medicine. While more than half of the undergraduate degrees in science are awarded to women, only 46% of doctoral degrees in science are awarded to women. In academia, the number of women at each level of career advancement continues to decrease, with women holding less than one-third of the positions of Ph.D.-level scientists in tenure-track
positions, and less than one-quarter of the full professorships at 4-year colleges and universities. Even in the health professions, like nearly all other fields, women are often underrepresented in many medical careers and earn significantly less than their male counterparts, as shown in a 2013 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Why do such disparities continue to exist and how do we break these cycles? The situation is complex and likely results from the combination of various factors, including how society conditions the behaviors of girls from a young age and supports their interests, both professionally and personally. Some have suggested that women do not belong in the laboratory, including Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt, whose 2015 public comments suggesting that women are too emotional for science were met with widespread condemnation.

Perhaps girls should be supported more from a young age in the areas of science and math. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs sponsored by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are excellent examples of programs that offer such support. Contributions by women in science should be made known more widely to the public, and marketing targeted to young girls should include more images of historically and professionally successful female scientists and medical professionals, encouraging all bright young minds, including girls and women, to pursue careers in science and medicine.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: