The role of British women in scientific society is set to be investigated

Credit where it's due for forgotten women of science

The role of British women in scientific society between the years 1830 to 2012 – who may never have received credit or recognition for their work – is set to be investigated with the launch of a new £33k project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The project is being organised by historians and scientists from Kingston University, University of Liverpool, the Royal Society and the Rothschild Archive London.

A motivating factor in bringing about the project is the issue of women's representation in science today, a subject that has featured heavily in UK media in recent months. 

“Women's unequal participation in science subjects at all levels, both in education, academia and in industry, is currently receiving close attention from policy makers, educationalists and social commentators,” says project leader Dr Susan Hawkins, a senior history lecturer from Kingston University.

The Independent newspaper last month, for example, carried a report which showed that females make up 5.5 per cent of physics professors, 6 per cent of chemistry and maths professors and a meagre 2 per cent of all professors in engineering.

Futhermore, recent statistics show that only one-third of science, technology, engineering and maths students in Britain are female, and just 11 per cent of senior positions in science are held by women.

Thus it is hoped the project may be able to influence current policy decisions.

“Part of the purpose of our work will be to examine closely data on women in science in the 19th and 20th centuries. The hope is that by looking at women's relationship with science in the past, we can pinpoint ways to encourage young women to participate more fully in the subject,” says Dr Hawkins.

The project starts off by putting into place a network of academics to help understand how historical perspectives might affect future education policy making. 

A wealth of historical information exists but it is dispersed between different archives, according to Dr Hawkins. The network could therefore help link these archives and give a bigger, clearer picture of women’s roles, by identifying where these archives are and what revelatory material they may contain.

The network will be organised around a series of events, including three workshops, a two-day international conference to be held at the Royal Society in May 2014 and an exhibition open to the public.

The first workshop sets out to identify archives that may contain information on women in science. It will concentrate on two groups of women: those whose work was recognised by the scientific community of their time and those who, despite producing work of high standard, were not.

“The intention is to look at the characteristics that link the two groups of women and also to find out what set them apart,” Dr Hawkins adds.

Another workshop will focus on identifying possible oral history projects.

“The final workshop will pull together the findings from the first two events and allow us to make recommendations to government on future projects to help increase female participation in science,” says Dr Hawkins.

In the past, women in science had a hard time and often weren’t recognised for their achievements. “The Royal Society didn’t accept female fellows until as late as 1945,” Dr Hawkins points out.

“It is crucial that women continue to take up the study of science and maths as historically women have been kept out of these professions, so who knows what genius has been lost?” asks Kingston University’s new chancellor, American playwright and author Bonnie Greer. “When you think of all the big problems that are out there waiting to be solved, every ounce of human intelligence is needed.”

Guests from around the world will attend a launch event for the project at the International Congress for the History of Science Technology and Medicine to be held in Manchester in July.

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