The story of women in science and technology throughout the ages is a deeply inspirational account of how a class of females, most of whose names have been lost through the great annals of time, helped change the world for the better. How can a lot of people have missed this truth? It seems, as one will reflect upon the current stature of women folk in society these days, that there has been a deliberate gap in introducing the concept to the populace. Most people have never heard about them. How come?
In this present time and age where -- throughout the world -- one can find the political landscapes setting high esteem upon equality and opportunity, women still need to struggle in order to carve their place in society.
Signs of it are present everywhere -- from the usual stereotypes, the gender bias about women being bossy or vain, to the cultural norms where women are defined by their so called traditional roles, and finally in societal expectations where women are anticipated to successfully and without fail strike a balance between domestic affairs and career life. It makes one wonder if and why has it always been so hard for women? What will the study of history tell us about the shifting perceptions about women through the ages?
In the field of science and technology, a person will surely make a terrible mistake once he or she assumes that almost all great discoveries and innovations are perpetuated by men and by men folk alone. In fact, there is a host of female figures in recorded history whose contributions, both creative and stirring, made headway in making the world a better, more comfortable, and more fascinating place to exist in. These women, who drew from the depths of their inner resources, materialized their dreams and their visions and presented them for all the world to see. They did not care whether they would be accepted or not since the thing that was of utmost value to them was to express the truth that they discovered and to share the wonderful facets of life with others who still didn’t know.
The discourse will not be concerned with endless debates about gender politics. Neither shall it be a rambling commentary about traditional feminism. Instead, it shall focus its highlight upon the noteworthy and significant contributions of women working in the field of science and technology. Eventually, the discourse will attempt to explore women’s roles in perpetuating science and technology and how technological change affected ideas of gender.
In prehistory, one can only speculate on the roles of women in advancing science and technology based on hypothetical assumptions. Even in the earliest and simplest human society, the entitlement of both sexes to an equal standing is still contestable, beginning with the rise of the great ancient civilizations and the invention of writing. However, evidence does show the existence of these esteemed women even during that time.
The facts gleaned from archaeological information tells us that some 6,000 years ago, evidence of women actively involved in science and technology vocations could be traced in areas such as Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. These were women belonging to different cultures, yet somehow possessing similar characteristics. They have all risen to power and position because of their unique character, skills, and talents.
Like the characters from some long forgotten legend, some of these women were Merit Ptah, a famed physician who lived 2,700 BCE in ancient Egypt (Bibliotheca Alexandrina); Queen Artemisia II of Caria, who is known to be the builder of one of the great wonders of the ancient world in honor of her dead husband King Mausolus (Encyclopedia Britannica); and Tapputi-Belatekallim, a chemist from ancient Mesopotamia (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 1). If people will think about the conditions and the times that these early scientists lived in, they all existed during a period when science and religion coexisted in perfect harmony. Aside from this, the society they lived in honored both the masculine and the feminine individual. As will be seen later on, shifts in gender perception may play a contributory factor not just in determining the height of social status but also in standardizing opportunities that are available for the members of society.
Basically, common knowledge about the women who were engaged in sciencing activities from archaic times may be fragmented, but archaeologists and scholars are continually trying to uncover what is essential for everyone to know.
Fascination with the past stems from curiosity and from the desire to understand, to bring to life what happened many years before our present generation. Knowledge of the past, gleaned for its value in appreciation and learning, may help the present society deal with issues that plight the current times. On the whole, it is easy to recognize the ebb and flow by the way women are given opportunities throughout the human story.
As civilizations rose and fell, a number of factors influenced what became of societal trends. The land of ancient Greece is widely hailed to be the land of philosophy and culture. However, females endured a more subservient role during these times (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 2). For instance, females were banned from attending public gatherings (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 2). Nevertheless, outlets for expression in the field of science was within reach. Schools emerged, offering a friendly environment where a milieu for equal opportunities abounded. These schools were headed by famous male scholars such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The schools they established included women teachers and students. It was within the secured environment of schools that women were given the freedom to express their instinctual scientific nature despite the paradox of being socially restrained in conformity with the prevailing norms of the times.
Among the league of exceptional Greek women scientists and philosophers were Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, who was interested in mathematics, physics, and medicine (Lindemann, “Arly Pythagoareans”); Aglaonice of Thessaly, who was an early astronomer (Brooklyn Museum); Arete of Cyrene, who was a prominent physicist and philosopher during her time (Lindemann, “Arete of Cyrene”); Aspasia of Miletus (Lindemann, “Aspasia of Miletus), and Artemesia of Caria (Socrates).
A decline in the number of women scientists by 200 B.C. reflects the recession in classical Greek culture at that time and the coming to power of the Roman Empire. Women scientists who lived around this period were Maria Hebraea, a celebrated alchemist who contributed much to early chemistry by inventing the equipment used for distillation and sublimation (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 2-3); Kleopatra Chrisopoeia, who was also an early chemist (Aleph); and Hypatia, who was the first known female astronomer and mathematician. Hypatia died in the hands of Christian fanatics and her death marked the end of prominent women in science for many hundreds of years (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 4).
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages was a period in history where much of the civilized world came to a halt in terms of progress and development. There was no material evidence of women scientists during the Dark Ages (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 5).
It is said that the recovery of the Western Civilization was linked to the rise of Christianity for it was in the monasteries and the nunneries where the skills of reading and writing were nurtured and the writings of the great scholars were collected and copied (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 6). Among the few esteemed women scientists of this period were the German abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, who lived during the twelfth century. She was a famed philosopher and a botanist (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 5). Hildegard lived in a time where there was an upsurge in the number of nunneries to the point that they exceeded the number of monasteries. This fact was not welcome to the male clerical hierarchy. As a result, many nunneries were closed, in effect excluding women from the opportunity to learn to read and write and especially to study Latin, the language in which scientific texts were written (Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham 5).
Next came the Renaissance period. The Renaissance was a time of renewed ardor in pursuit of the arts and the sciences. However, historical data does not show any significant rise in the number of women scientists in this period. One major reason might be because the women who seemed beyond the ordinary were often accused of witchcraft. This prevailed for many hundreds of years. In turn, it greatly discouraged women from pursuing their interests in science and technology, especially since they were in for fear for their lives.
When one takes a glance into contemporary history, it generally seems as though past events have a way of recalling themselves into the present. From the 1900s up until quite recently, women are largely still subjected to a kind of prejudice that represses truthful self-expression, creativity, and vitality. Women have been categorized and boxed in roles that reflect the authoritarian ideals of the generation. How truly unfair!
Generally speaking, however, women’s role in the development of science is undeniable. Contributions to knowledge, no matter how big or small, tend to ripple, building waves of information, which supports other bodies of learning. But why is it that after all this time, there is still so few women working in the field of science as compared to men? Are they unmotivated? What holds them back? Is it culture’s fault? Fortunately, in a unique opportunity to analyze why, students, especially under education and women’s studies, are in a position to examine by feature and by measure why women are underrepresented in some parts of the world and what can be done to entice more ladies to venture into science- and technology- related professions.
One can begin inquiring into these questions by simply looking into the two basic institutions that bear the most profound influence on a person’s development: the home and the school. It was found that when the school and the home work hand in hand in persuading young girls to believe and have confidence in themselves, and to believe that they can be so much smarter with studying and practice, it makes a whole lot of difference in girls’ attitudes (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose). As a result, they become inclined to set higher ambitions. In this regard, both the home and the school need to recognize that their role as institutions for nurturance and learning can bring out the best or the worst in the young generation. Interest for science and technology careers is nurtured through the home and the school. When educators and parents attune together in opening wider horizons and opportunities for the school age generation through career counseling, young people -- most critically, girls -- will be led to professional pathways that truly bring out the best in them. Formal education would have done its part in encouraging the “human capital” to bloom where they are planted.
After the school and the home, politics and the government also play a role. For instance, in countries with commendable policies and programs for education, child care, health care, fairness of salary, and equality of treatment in gender (Huyer and Hafkin), citizens are fortunate because they are more likely to enjoy social conditions that boost empowerment. This means a lot for the women part of the population. Because they are able to access variables that can aid them in achieving a good quality of life, they become entitled to reaching better opportunities and a higher stature in society (Huyer and Hafkin).
Aside from the institutional sources that may influence or drive women towards or away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses, variables of social origin can equally influence women’s interest or involvement. Take, for example, stereotypes. Stereotypes can depress girls’ ambitions for science and engineering professions over time (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose). Bias may also limit women’s progress in scientific and engineering professions (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose). Mainstream thought tends to correlate math and science with the male gender more than with the women. On the other hand, if a woman were to work in a scientific or engineering position, she is more likely to be predisposed to negative opinions (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose).
These are some of the things that discourage women from seeking a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics profession. However, as emphasized early on, awareness on the kind of learning environment and the home may be used to encourage more women to seek careers in any of the aforementioned professions (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose).It is also recommended that girls be encouraged to take on a flexible outlook about their own intelligence in order to diminish their vulnerability to any stereotype threat that may affect their school in an undesirable way (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose).
In addition, it is important to expose students to female role models who succeeded in their chosen profession. When girls find out first hand that their ambitions can be within their reach because there are others who have been there before them, the stereotype threat can be managed and overcome (Hill, Corbett and St. Rose).
After exploring women’s roles in perpetuating science and technology, the next emerging question is how technological change affected ideas of gender or vice versa. Technological change is defined as the shift in ways and practices, which are brought about by invention and innovation. From this key concept stems the recently developed field of Gendered Innovation. Using technology, Gendered Innovations channel information about sex and gender to investigate and learn new things. This has specific applications in the fields of medicine, science, engineering, and the environment (“What is Gendered Innovations?”).
For instance, how can knowledge of gender differences make an impact in the design of ambulant instruments that enable the elderly to lead autonomous and independent lives? The answer lies in physiological knowledge. For instance, women may lead longer lives than men, but are more prone to incapacitating illness. Men, on the other hand, tend to lose their hearing early on. These factors may be considered in designing a good prototype for a device, which will aid the aged individual in health and in comfort.
Aleph, Faena. “Three Great Female Alchemists.” faenaaleph.com. Faenaaleph.com, n.d. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://faenaaleph.com/articles/3-great-female-alchemists/>
Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “Women in Science throughout History.” bibalex.org. Bibliotheca Alexandrina, n.d. Web.19 Nov. 2014 <http://www.bibalex.org/wis2007/home/StaticPage.aspx?Page=5>.
Brooklyn Museum. “Elizabeth A. Sacker Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Aglaonice.” brooklynmuseum.org. Brooklyn Museum, 29 January 2007. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Artemisia II.” britannica.com. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.,
2014.Web. 19 Nov. 2014 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/36829/Artemisia-
Hill. Katherine, Corbett, Christianne, and St. Rose, Andresse. Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: The American Association of University Women, 2010. Print
Huyer, Sophia and Hafkin, Nancy. “New Gender Benchmarking Study Finds Numbers of Women in Science and Technology Fields Alarmingly Low in Leading Economies” elsevier.com. Elsevier B.V, 3 October 2012. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/corporate-social-responsibility/new-gender-benchmarking-study-finds-numbers-of-women-in-science-and-technology-fields-alarmingly-low-in-leading-economies#sthash.en07NtZd.dpuf>
“What is Gendered Innovations?” stanford.edu. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/what-is-gendered-innovations.html>
Lindemann, Kate. “Early Pythagoreans: Women Philosophers: Arignote, Damo, Myia, Theano I.” women-philosophers.com. n.d. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://www.women-philosophers.com/Early-Pythagoreans.html >
Lindemann, Kate. “Arete of Cyrene” women-philosophers.com. n.d. Web. 21 November. 2014 http://www.women-philosophers.com/Arete-of-Cyrene.html>
Lindemann, Kate. “Aspasia of Miletus” women-philosophers.com. n.d. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://www.women-philosophers.com/Aspasia-of-Miletus.html>
Rayner-Canham, Marlene and Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey. “From the Earliest Times to Scientific Revolution.” Women in Chemistry: their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century. Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2001. Print
Socrates. “Artemesia of Caria” Classical Wisdom Weekly. Web. 21 November. 2014 <http://classicalwisdom.com/artemisia-caria/>