If you're going to be in or around London on May 21st, please do check out "A Centenary Celebration of the First Female Fellows of the Geological Society of London." £45 will provide you admission, coffee, tea, lunch, and a book of abstracts - a bargain! Especially for a conference that includes "a feminists' guide to dinosaurs." If you go, please take detailed notes and report back!
Women have been doing geology for at least as long as geology has been a science, but getting recognition for their work in a male-dominated world was hard. The GSL was founded in 1807, but women who made important contributions to the geosciences weren't even allowed to set foot inside meetings, even if they were receiving awards or having their papers read. It was nearly a hundred years after its founding before women could even be present to hear their own papers read, and not until 1919 that women could be elected as Fellows. And the GSL wasn't unique.
Science is still overwhelmingly seen as a male endeavor. A 2014 survey found that a quarter of people couldn't think of the name of a single woman out of all the famous scientists they could think of. Most of the ones who could dredge up a name stopped at Marie Curie – they didn't know anyone else. And lest you think this is just a layperson problem, even scientists had trouble recalling the countless women who have contributed to STEM over the centuries:
Professor [Cynthia] Burek told The Independent on Sunday that some scientists who had been questioned during the survey had resorted to naming their university colleagues, as they were unable to think of enough famous names. Without efforts to promote them, female scientists would sink into obscurity, she added.
"They're not part and parcel of the education system. We're not giving youngsters role models. Some of these women have had fantastic lives – why does nobody know about them?"
"We're hoping this might encourage people to look at these lives – at women who have been killed while doing research, who have had their research stolen, who have so fundamentally changed our ideas."
Conferences like this are essential for ensuring that women's contributions to the foundations of science won't continue to be overlooked. We need to do a much better job of recognizing the women who, often at a disadvantage and in the face of discrimination and discouragement, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Women were always there, in the labs, in the field, writing books, collaborating with men or working alone, advancing science one discovery at a time. They deserve to be remembered. And girls today deserve role models as they grow up to join the next generation of scientists.
Science isn't limited to one gender. Discovery doesn't depend on the sex you were assigned at birth. And history is full of women who were told they couldn't or shouldn't participate, but did science anyway. Many of their textbooks, treatises, papers, and memoirs are now available for free on Amazon Kindle and Project Gutenberg, among other places. The internet is full of listicles naming women who did important work in every branch of science. Even if you can't make it to this conference, you can still start filling the gaps our educational system has left.
For a small sampling of Pioneering Women in the Geosciences, in fact, you can begin right here:
Special thanks to Professor Cynthia Burek, who kindly invited me to this conference. Much of her work on women in the geosciences is available at Academia.edu. Check it out, and send her your thanks.