Female scientists fail to get proper credit in papers, study says
In years past, learned men have advanced humanity’s understanding of how genes adapt and change over time, a field called population genetics.
Now, a new study sheds light on a previously unknown fact: Many of those scientists were learned women.
Researchers at San Francisco State, UC Merced and Brown universities studied 883 articles published between 1970 and 1990 in the journal Theoretical Population Biology.
They found that in the 1970s in particular, women who performed mathematical computations and programmed computers — doctorate-level work — typically were not listed as authors of the articles, although their contributions were essential in developing new ways of testing evolutionary hypotheses and creating procedures still widely used in studying DNA today.
The women’s work on these seminal research papers was not always ignored: Some were thanked in the acknowledgment section at the end.
“Nobody reads acknowledgments,” said co-author Rori Rohlfs, an assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State. “As a result, you don’t get any academic credit.”
And without such credit, there is no grant money, no job as a professor, no future in the field, Rohlfs said. “The currency of academia is authorship.” Publish or perish. By neglecting the contributions of women, it can appear to future generations that women didn’t contribute. Yet “these contributions might well have resulted in authorship today,” wrote the researchers, who said the suppression of work by women in one scientific field suggests the practice was common in others.
“We are now in a cultural moment when the historical scientific contributions of women and people of color are being increasingly revealed to popular audiences,” the study notes and points to the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” set in the pre-civil-rights-era South. It’s about the largely unknown black women whose mathematical calculations helped NASA blast rockets into space.
The new authorship study, published in the journal Genetics, found that in the 1970s alone, women represented 7 percent of the journal’s authors (38), and 58.6 percent of those thanked at the end (17). Across the full two decades of the study, women represented 7.4 percent of authors (80), and 43.2 percent of those acknowledged at the end (17).
One of the women whose contributions were acknowledged at the end was Margaret Wu, who was a research assistant in the 1970s doing statistical programming in the math department at Australia’s Monash University.
A top student at the University of Melbourne, Wu’s undergraduate degree was in statistics. At Monash, professors explained their research projects to her, and she created the algorithms and found the parameter estimates they needed to do their work.
Her job was to support the professors in their chosen projects. No one suggested that she pursue a doctorate, for which she could have chosen her own projects.
“Had someone suggested that I do it, I possibly would have found that an attractive idea,” Wu told Rohlfs, who located Wu and recently interviewed her.
Wu’s statistics appeared in at least five papers, including two published in Theoretical Population Biology. One, published in 1975, has been cited more than 3,300 times and established a “widely used estimator of genetic diversity” called Watterson’s estimator, the new study says.
Her contribution is noted at the end of the paper: “I thank Mrs. M. Wu for help with the numerical work, and in particular for computing table 1.”
Wu eventually earned a doctorate, developed statistical methods of analyzing educational data, and is professor emeritus at the University of Melbourne.
“I feel angry for these women, who should have gotten more credit. They could have been my generation’s mentors,” Rohlfs said. At the same time, “just seeing that these women exist is like a beacon. It’s validating!”
Rohlfs said she intends to continue looking into the contributions of such hidden figures. Her co-authors at San Francisco State are Samantha Kristin Dung, Andrea López, Ezequiel Lopez Barragan, Rochelle-Jan Reyes, Ricky Thu, Edgar Castellanos and Francisca Catalan.
Co-author Emilia Huerta-Sánchez is from UC Merced and Brown University.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are scientists who work for NASA in the movie “Hidden Figures.”
Rori Rohlfs, an assistant professor at San Francisco State, co-wrote the study on how female scientists are credited.