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Hidden Figures

Some of the most important figures in the history of human progress shared several things in common: they were women, scientists and invisible. This last attribute was acquired by seeing their work and contribution to science attributed to their male colleagues. An absence in the scientific narrative due to gender also has a female name: Matilda.

The reasons for the invisibility of women in the official scientific discourse are many, and the list of women is long, too long. The main reason is that they do not conform to the common, traditional image that scientific authority - male actors - has built up over the years around science. They are seen more as muses, objects of desire or motherhood figures, which seems at odds with intelligence and professional progress. Although nothing could be further from the truth, it is because of all of the above that women face greater difficulty in their careers in science, becoming the hidden figures of progress.

Throughout human history, in the name of science and philosophy, such serious blunders as the difference in intelligence between genders have been defended, which has hindered the intellectual and professional development of women. Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) was convinced that the male brain was larger and therefore superior to the female brain; a conviction that persisted. St. Augustine (354-430) said: "They look like men, they are almost men, but they are so inferior that they are not even capable of reproducing the species, it is men who beget the children"; and which continued for many years. The sociologist Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) is famous for saying: "Women represent the lowest form of human evolution".

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is commemorated every 11 February

Despite their historical context, it is hard to believe that great philosophical and scientific minds, whose contributions in their fields have endured to the present day, would make such comparisons between men and women. It is also strange that two fields focused on the evolution and progression of human beings, philosophy and science, should make such statements; and it is even more surprising that today, in the 21st century, it is still necessary to talk about the "Matilda effect", the prejudice against recognising the achievements of women scientists, whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues. But who said girls aren't scientists?

A gender issue

Gender-based devaluation has traditionally and systematically occurred - and still occurs - in scientific and academic activities in all parts of the world.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only two out of every ten people working in science and technology are women. In Spain, according to the first 'Women and Innovation' report published in 2020 by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, shows the existence of imbalances in the presence of women in the science and innovation sectors. In particular, their representation in the directly employed population in high and medium-high technology sectors ranges from 26 % of the overall workforce to 31 % of those directly involved in R&D activities.

The gender gap that occurs due to the temporary or total abandonment of academic or research careers by women is reflected in the famous scissor-shaped graph seen in reports such as 'Women Researchers 2020' published by the CSIC Commission for Women and Science – the CSIC is the first public-private research organization in Spain to create a Commission for Women and Science – that shows that, although there is parity at the beginning of research careers, as one progresses the representation of women is lower in positions of responsibility. In addition, the 'Centro Nacional de Biotecnología (the Spanish National Biotechnology Centre) 2020 Women Report' shows that the difference is not only in research staff, but also at a professional level, with the categories of specialised technicians, research assistants and administrative staff being those with the highest representation of women. The reasons for this? A series of gender-based social barriers prevent women from advancing and thus make them invisible.

As a result, there is currently a decline in the number of women who choose technical careers. According to UNESCO, the percentage of women studying scientific careers is 28.5%; a figure comparable to that of Spain, which has not seen women’s presence in the classroom increase as expected. In fact, while in the 1980s women accounted for 30% in computer engineering, today they account for barely 12%. Another example is the field of mathematics, in which women were 60% of enrolments in 2000, but in 2018 that percentage dropped to 27%.

There is currently a slight decline in the number of women who choose technical careers

In fact, there is a lack of role models during the younger educational stages, since, according to different studies by the University of Valencia, Spanish textbooks of secondary education contain barely 7.6% of female references compared to their male counterparts, with only 12% citing academic works. This lack of female role models has an impact on girls' professional aspirations which, years later, translates into a lower presence in the careers known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics); a fact that the #NoMoreMatildas campaign, launched last February by the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT), denounces, and which aims to destroy the stereotypes that make girls believe they are less intelligent or less capable in science than boys. "Girls fill schools, but they doubt their own potential, which prevents them from taking off and developing in full equality", explained the Minister of Education, Isabel Celaá, during the presentation ceremony.

In many areas conceived within the patriarchal system, not only in science, prestige and recognition are directed towards men

In many areas conceived within the patriarchal system, not only in science, prestige and recognition are directed towards men. Thus, the problem of inequality, whatever the field, "is a question that goes beyond the strictly cultural, it is a question of power, of loss of privileges", affirms Clara Guilló, professor of Sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid. "We should solve the problems of social inequality that are dragged into the scientific world and make it easy for future generations, including my own," says Carmen Robles, a researcher at the Andalusian government's Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training (IFAPA).

  • Women, long in the shadows, have been pioneers in science since the dawn of time
  • Women have become the hidden figures in scientific progress

In the academic environment of science, the episodes whereby women have become the hidden figures are once again too many: the isolation to which many have been subjected in male working groups; the intentional attribution of "bad fame" to discredit their work; the forgetting of those who signed scientific papers alongside their husbands; the recording of their initials instead of their names; the outright theft of their discoveries; or those who were (and have been) pushed out of a job to leave room for colleagues with less brilliant CVs, are the reasons why science is considered to have forgotten about women. But it is not that they were forgotten, it is that they were hidden.

One example is Ada Byron (1815-1852), author of the first algorithm that could be processed by a machine and, therefore, the first computer programmer in history. Although her contribution is now recognised, in her time she had to sign her notes on algorithms only with her initials for fear that her studies would be censored because she was a woman. Meanwhile, Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), a renowned actress who is responsible for what we know today as wifi, had to endure the ridicule of the military authorities at the height of World War II when she offered her engineering expertise, and whose work was not recognised until many years later. Unfortunately, these two cases are by no means isolated.

Matilda Effect

Women, long in the shadows, have been pioneers in science since the dawn of time. Hypatia of Alexandria is considered the first scientist in history. Her contributions in the field of mathematics and astronomy and the historical framework of her assassination in a male-dominated world, more than 1,600 years ago, made her an icon for all those women who succeeded her.

From Agnodice in the 4th century B.C., the first known female physician in the history of the world to Vera Rubin in 1970, the astronomer who saw what no one else saw, too many women did not get the recognition they deserved in their time: Nettie Stevens, geneticist who described the chromosomal bases that determine sex, whose attribution of the discovery went to the man whose assistant she was because he was a more renowned researcher; Mileva Maric, physicist relegated under the shadow of her then husband, Albert Einstein, with whom she worked on the theory of motion, but only he would be remembered and awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921; Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission with her partner, but it was he who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 without any mention of her; Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence do not appear in the history books of computing, but they were the programmers of the ENIAC machine (1946-1955). Those who did go down in history were the two engineers on the team; Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in the discovery of DNA in 1953, but the Nobel in Medicine went to her male colleagues; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who spotted the first radio signal that would lead to the discovery of pulsars with her thesis supervisor, but she would never win the Nobel in Physics in 1974 for it. He did; Jean Purdy, a nurse and embryologist, played a key role in developing in vitro fertilisation in 1978, but her work was never recognised. That of her fellow scientists was.

It is necessary to highlight the case of Marie Curie, of whom little more can be said about her renowned figure, except that Pierre Curie, her husband, threatened to reject the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics when the selection committee intended to honour only him and Henri Becquerel and deny Marie the corresponding recognition because she was a woman. This fact is perhaps proof that, if all men had shown the same deference to their fellow female researchers as Pierre Curie, the Matilda effect would probably not exist today. But it does exist.


Victims of the Matilda effect, many women have contributed to the history of scientific, and therefore human, progress without receiving the prestige they deserve for their work. However, one does not have to look that far back to see the consequences of this effect among women pursuing careers in the sciences. "The sciences and the role of women in them is relatively recent given the lack of access to education, lack of incentives and social and family pressure," says Beatriz Morales-Nin, researcher and CSIC Research Professor at IMEDEA.

  • Victims of the Matilda effect, many women have contributed to the history of scientific progress

Gender equality has long eluded the sciences and this represents a loss of work for women who, probably, in the long run, felt disheartened and lowered their contribution. "I lost the opportunity to be hired back in the late 1980s, because there was a rumour that I was pregnant and would not be able to do the job," says Rosario Cañas (Charina), research support technician at IMEDEA UIB-CSIC, about a project at Madre de las Marismas, in Doñana. "It was a hoax that circulated because someone was more interested in a man being hired to carry out the work”. A fact that, together with the disdain for her research, led her to abandon her dissertation.

It is time for a change. Humanity cannot afford to waste brilliant minds on social - or any other management - issues. It is necessary, then, not only to recognise the work of the great women who led our way and whose careers were committed to transforming society, but also to revise the patterns imposed in the official scientific discourse, rewarding and recognising scientific contributions for their importance and not for the gender of the person behind them. Because, at the end of the day, talent has no gender.

Ben Barres: exceptional proof

Professor Ben Barres (1954-2017) was an American neurobiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine who investigated the interaction between neurons and glial cells and glial cells in the nervous system. In 1997, he transitioned from female to male, becoming the first openly transgender scientist.

Barres described his experiences of sex discrimination at MIT and spoke and wrote about his scientific achievements, claiming that they were perceived differently depending on the sex under which he published his work.