The tough feminine side of Science
There was once a time when the clash between science and religion could cost you your life. Evidence of this lies in the merciless end of Hypatia of Alexandria, the most renowned female scientist from Classical antiquity. If she lived in modern times, her theories would be safe and out of the reach of upset Christians. Would she, however, be able to have the same visibility that she had when her native Egypt was a Roman province? Probably not.
Today, being a scientist usually has a much better reputation than before, although some male scientists are still more highly regarded than other female scientists. A certain sense of equity did come into existence when women were allowed to go to university. Nevertheless, the female pioneers had to face many obstacles that they had to overcome to stand out from their male colleagues.
The figure of Marie Curie, the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize in two different categories (Physics and Chemistry) and whose genius demonstrated to the world, among many other things, that next to (and not behind) every great man is a great woman, momentarily quieted academic prejudices. However, this enduring (and tiresome) battle of the sexes which is deeply entrenched in our society continues to overshadow the work of Curie’s female successors.
11 February, the initiative
21st Century. Half of the world’s population has a mobile phone, takes selfies at every corner and shops online. How modern! Be that as it may, professions, salaries, opportunities, promotions, etc. continue to put gender before talent. Maybe we are not so modern after all.
To close the gap and achieve equality, the UN decided to act, and 11 February 2016 became the first “International Day of Women and Girls in Science”. Moreover, in 2019 UNESCO compiled data from female R&D that had been registered worldwide in the new millennium. Although the initiative aims to reach full equality and greater sustainability in 2030, progress is very slow.
In Spain, the 11 de febrero female volunteer group has been doing its bit to support the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) cause for the past 5 years. María García, member of the Coordination team, states that “gender stereotypes continue to have a major influence on society. There is still work to be done, such as promoting the appearance of female role models in channels as fundamental as textbooks. I personally chose to study computer science because I find it exciting, but I didn’t know anything about the sector’s leading women until my more advanced classes”.
The lack of female role models is also the focus of the campaign #NoMoreMatildas launched by AMIT (Association of Women Researchers and Technologists).
Single feminine patent
If it wasn’t easy for women to start creating inventions and conducting research, it wasn’t easy for them to patent their own achievements either. In the 18th century, if they wanted their documents to be processed, they were required to seek assistance from a man who would act on their behalf to apply for invention privileges. Luckily, the 19th century brought changes.
In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies was the first woman to obtain a patent in the United States, thanks to an innovative process for making hats. A change in fashion, however, ruined her life and she died penniless. Her bad luck also affected her patent, the original file being destroyed in a fire at the United States Patent Office in 1836. Justice was obtained for Mary in 2006 when she was inducted into the USA National Inventors Hall of Fame.
In Spain, Fermina Orduña made a difference in 1865 when she became the first woman who was allowed to apply for an invention privilege without male assistance. She patented the first Carriage for the hygienic dispensing of donkey, cow or goat’s milk to the public (No. ES 4006H1).
Currently, technology and archives from the WIPO allow us to learn about how women’s impact on research worldwide has evolved.
We can even see the upward curve of female participation in PCT Publications over the last 15 years, as shown in the graph below.
Or know the percentage of PCT publications filed by female inventors, according to their country of residence.
In Spain, the SPTO is responsible for providing data on patent applications filed and those that are granted. The Spanish Office only differentiates between gender for individual applicants, not for inventors associated with universities, entities, private companies or members of the CSIC. In any case, the gap is notable among individual holders:
Despite the adversities, not everything is doom and gloom for the women of science. Although change has been slow, society no longer has any qualms about acknowledging the fact that without female brains we wouldn’t have homes that are 100% powered by solar energy (patent No. US 4034736 by Maria Telkes); computer programme technology (Grace Hopper); ice cream makers (patent No. US 3254 by Nancy Johnson) or windscreen wipers (patent No. US 743801 by Mary Anderson), to mention a few examples.
And another strike to the male ego to end: Spain’s most profitable patent was obtained by Margarita Salas. This Asturian woman passed away in 2019, leaving the DNA polymerase protein (No. US 5001050) and a quick and reliable process for reproducing large DNA samples and obtaining complete genomic tests for posterity. This female researcher’s work has brought more than 6 million euros in royalties to the CSIC and has facilitated the work of oncologists, forensic experts and archaeologists.
There is still a lot of work to be done (both in the laboratory and in society), but nothing is impossible. Let’s apply Marie Curie’s advice when she said “we must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves”. If we overcome our prejudices, perhaps we can make every day of the year be like 11 February.
This article was made possible thanks to the collaboration and graphic contributions of the following: the Statistics Department of the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office (Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism); María García from the non-profit initiative, 11 de Febrero, and the WIPO Statistics Department.