Female Scientists Aren’t THAT Rare

There are plenty of deserving women who never got so much as a nod.


Tuesday on the Freakonomics blog, Stephen Dubner posed the following question from a reader:

I am an economics teacher from Alaska. I can personally list my top 10 favorite actors, top 10 favorite living writers, top 10 favorite rock groups, and even my top 10 living economists and top 10 entrepreneurs; but how many out there can name their top 10 living scientists and top 10 living mathematicians?

I wonder what your readership would say.
I have asked my students this question and they look at me in terror. They get to Stephen Hawking and that is it. This is a group of extremely bright A.P. Econ./ A.P. Chem. geeks.

Yesterday, Dubner posted his favorite list submitted in response. “You could argue with choices endlessly of course. (No women!?) You could also accuse him of a bias toward scientists who write well,” Dubner wrote.

Well, I’ll take Dubner up on that first argument. Dubner’s pick was, unfortunately, not alone in its lack of women. Skimming through the responses to Tuesday’s request reveals only a handful of women, and some didn’t really count since they’re dead (e.g., Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin) or not scientists/mathematicians (e.g., Danica McKellar, Mary Roach). I was also a bit surprised and disturbed by the number of science writers suggested (I may be a science writer, too, but I’ll be the first to say we’re not scientists).

One commenter managed to pull up a decently diverse top 10 but didn’t really follow instructions either:

How about some young up and comers:

Pardis Sabeti
Amy Wagers
Dan Goldman
Joshua Plotkin
Joe DeRisi
George Daley
Erica Saphire
Matt Redinbo
Kathleen Caron
Lou Muglia
They may not be faces on the covers of magazines or have authored best sellers, but they are doing significant research that deserves attention.

The rare person managed to accomplish the task and complete a list of living scientists that was decently diverse and followed the rules:

Only ten?

John Mather - Physicist, JWST project scientist

Steven Chu - Physicist, now doing politics

Roger Penrose - Physicist, leaning toward philosophy

Neil deGrasse Tyson - physicist, educator

Kathryn Flanagan - physicist, JWST Mission leader

Craig Venter - Human Genome
Anthony Fauci - AIDS researcher
Reza Shadmehr - Computational neurobiologist
Jane Lubchenco - Marine biologist, now doing politics
Linda Buck - Biologist
— Tom

There were other women mentioned, as well, scattered through the text. Here are the ones I found:

Leda Cosmides, psychology professor, UC Santa Barbara

Lisa Randall, physicist, Harvard University

Nalini Ambady, social psychologist, Tufts University

Jane Goodall, primatologist

Barbara Grant, evolutionary biologist, Princeton University

Sandra Faber, astrophysicist

Sylvia Earle, oceanographer

Marlene Zuk, behavioral ecologist, UC Riverside

But there were plenty of deserving women who never got so much as a nod. How about Rita Colwell, microbiologist and the first woman to head up the National Science Foundation? And we’ve featured plenty of amazing women scientists in the pages of Smithsonian magazine, such as Nobel Prize-winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, astrophysicist and MacArthur genius Andrea Ghez, hyena biologist Kay Holekamp, the Smithsonian Institution’s own coral reef scientist Nancy Knowlton, Mars scientist Maria Zuber, cheetah expert Laurie Marker, and Susan Solomon, who helped figure out how to fix the ozone hole and is now co-chair of the IPCC. We’ve also written about Mary Schweitzer, who discovered soft tissue in dinosaur fossils; Lisa Kaltenegger, who is looking for Earth-like planets; Jennifer Richeson, a sociologist who studies racism; Amber VanDerwarker, an archaeologist who is figuring out what the ancient Olmec ate; Elizabeth Catlos, geologist who is tracing the history of the Himalayas and other mountain ranges; and Christina Galitsky, who designed an energy-efficient cookstove for refugees, just to name a few.

There are many reasons why so few women made it into people’s top ten lists. While women make up half of the recipients of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, they constitute less than 20 percent of full-time S&E professors. So women are already outnumbered by more than four to one.

Also, I’ve noticed that most of the scientists that people named are ones that actively seek publicity. That’s not a negative—we need people like Neil deGrasse Tyson who can be great scientists and great science communicators to educate the public about the wonders of science. But few female scientists fit into this category. And if we look at the scientists who have appeared in places like the Colbert Report—a strange but wonderful outlet for interesting science—I’m hard pressed to remember one woman among them.

That’s part of the problem. Not only are women still rare at the top of the science world, but they are even more uncommon in the public eye. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t smart women doing great science—you just have to look a bit harder for them.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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