The Matilda Effect and Careers in STEM

By Sonya Langman (@sonyalangman | SCWIST Digital Content Creator)

What does it mean to be a feminist in STEM? At first, feminists stood for women’s right to vote. 

In Canada, the fight began with Mary Ann Shadd Cary who spoke against racial and gender inequality in 1853 as a first female publisher. Women got full voting rights 100 years later in 1960. Then feminists fought for legal independence, equal opportunities in employment, and reproductive rights; this fight is still ongoing. 

In STEM, feminists have been advocating for recognition of women’s contributions to science and trying to boost the number of women joining STEM fields. The former has been somewhat more successful. We now recognize contributions of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, and numerous others. The 2020 Nobel prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for discovery of CRISPR gene editing technology, the first time the prize has been awarded to two women. This brings the count of female Nobel prizes laureates up to 8 (men have been awarded 185 prizes to date). 

While both men and women are working tirelessly to make advances in science, women’s contributions are often forgotten while men receive recognition. There is a name for this phenomenon: the Matilda Effect. 

The Matilda Effect

This term was coined by Dr. Margaret Rositter, a historian who came across a book written by Matilda Gage that documented this exact phenomenon back in the 1800s. Dr. Rositter went on to write a book documenting the work of female scientists in America, and putting it in the historical context. 

Many have heard of “publish or perish”, but women face further challenges even after they publish. Research has shown that abstracts written by male authors are seen to be of greater quality than abstracts written by women 1. Interestingly, males also tend to under-estimate academic performance of their female classmates in undergraduate classroom setting 2.

Campaigns for equal representation need improvement

Despite the recent push for equal representation, women do not comprise 50% of the STEM workforce. While it is no longer believed that girls just don’t have the “aptitude” for sciences, Canadian women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in a STEM job than men 3. Women are also 30% more likely to exit STEM careers 4, especially after having a child 5. The question, of course, is why is that? 

Even after launching numerous campaigns to encourage girls to join STEM fields, the pipeline remains leaky. It is not that women do not pursue STEM degrees: in Canada, about 40% of STEM Bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in 2017 (notably, women comprise the majority of science graduates, but only 20% of engineering graduates)6. However, even after being awarded a STEM degree, women are less likely to persist in the field. There could be numerous reasons for this: lack of female role models, the ever-present pay gap, workplace discrimination and a lack of recognition are just few of the challenges that women face. 

Redefining progress

A study from the University of Missouri found an interesting paradox: in countries with a larger gender gap (i.e. gender inequality), the proportion of women in STEM jobs was considerably higher 7. In these countries, having a STEM job could be seen as a source of more stable income. On the flip side, statistics have previously shown that in countries with a better welfare structure and smaller gender gap, the employment of women in STEM fields is more disproportionate. This seeming contradiction could mean that, in scenarios where there are safeguards for job loss, some women may be leaving their STEM jobs to pursue careers that are less financially stable but more aligned with their individual interests. 

One could ask: If women still choose to leave STEM jobs in countries where strong efforts are made to support gender equality, what are the contributing factors? Perhaps how many women stay in STEM is not the only metric for the progress made, and there needs to be a qualitative assessment of the current STEM environment. Perhaps the impacts and achievements of women who have stayed in STEM jobs should be a stronger metric, rather than solely focusing on retention. While women may be leaving STEM in greater numbers than men, it is still important to acknowledge the progress that has been made and to identify the path to a better future.  

Sonya Langman is a Digital Content Creator for SCWIST. Outside of SCWIST, she is a PhD Candidate in the Interdisciplinary Oncology department at UBC. Have questions for Sonya? Contact via Twitter @sonyalangman to get in touch.

1. Knobloch-Westerwick, S., Glynn, C. J. & Huge, M. The Matilda Effect in Science Communication: An Experiment on Gender Bias in Publication Quality Perceptions and Collaboration Interest. Sci. Commun. 35, 603–625 (2013).

2. Grunspan, D. Z. et al. Males under-estimate academic performance of their female peers in undergraduate biology classrooms. PLoS One 11, 1–16 (2016).

3. Statistics Canada. Table 14-10-0335-02 Proportion of women and men employed in occupations, annual. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1410033502 doi:https://doi.org/10.25318/1410033501-eng.

4. Kristyn, F. Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series A Gender Analysis of the Occupational Pathways of STEM Graduates in Canada. Statistics Canada vol. 1 (2019).

5. Cech, E. A. & Blair-Loy, M. The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 116, 4182–4187 (2019).

6. Statistics Canada. Postsecondary graduates, by International Standard Classification of Education, institution type, Classification of Instructional Programs, STEM and BHASE groupings, status of student in Canada, age group and gender. doi:https://doi.org/10.25318/3710016401-eng.

7. Stoet, G. & Geary, D. C. The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Psychol. Sci. 29, 581–593 (2018).