Women have played a significant role in the development of science and medicine. In the late 19th century, Rebecca Saunders, a British botanist and geneticist, and Muriel Wheldale, a British biochemist, contributed to the founding of modern genetics through their work with biologist William Bateson at the University of Cambridge in England1. In 1903, the Polish-born French physicist Marie Curie (along with her husband) won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Curie later won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering polonium and radium and she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win the prize in two different fields. During World War II, US crystallographer Isabella L. Karle developed processes to isolate plutonium chloride from impure plutonium oxide while working on the Manhattan Project1 and mathematician Grace Hopper worked for the U.S. Navy as one of the first computer programmers. In just the 21st century, women have won 11 Nobel Prizes in the sciences and continue to make crucial contributions to the development of science and medicine today.
Much to Celebrate, Much More to Do
Although underrepresented for much of scientific and medical history, women today have much to celebrate. Back in 1970, 8% of STEM workers and 38% of all workers were women. By 2019, the STEM proportion had increased to 27% and women made up 48% of all workers2. The representation of women has increased substantially in certain STEM sectors, especially the social sciences (eg, Anthropology, Archaeology, Economics, Geography, History, Law, Linguistics, Politics, Psychology and Sociology) where the share of women increased from 19% in 1970 to 64% in 2019. Perhaps most significantly, women now make up the majority of medical students. As of 2019, 50.5% of medical students in the United States are women3.
However, despite all these advancements, there is still much to be done. Women have still not made significant gains in computer and engineering roles, which make up the largest portion (80%) of the STEM workforce—women represented only about a quarter of computer workers and 15% of those in engineering occupations2. And while women comprise a majority of the nation’s social scientists, the social sciences account for only 3% of STEM occupations. Women also have fewer leadership roles in medical institutions and in academia and women physicians are still routinely paid less for the same work and responsibilities as men. Additionally, women are frequently passed over for tenure at major academic institutions. As American Medical Association President Susan R. Bailey, MD wrote late last year “We have far fewer bylines in academic journals and often face bias—either implicit or explicit—that keeps us from advancing in our careers at the same pace as men4.”
A Call to Action
Many wonder what they can do to rectify these disparities that continue today. They can start by being advocates—for paid maternity leave, for institutional practices in hiring and promote that specifically address these disparities, for inclusion of more women in clinical trials, and for equal representation on search and hiring committees. Additionally, we need to work to create mentorship opportunities for women in medicine and in the sciences and to amplify their voices. Avant Healthcare is a woman-owned business, and we understand the urgency and importance of this sort of advocacy. Our CEO Deborah Wood had this to say about women in science and healthcare:
“At DWA and Avant Healthcare we embrace diversity, celebrate our differences, and accommodate our different needs. We celebrated Women’s History Month last month and I was amazed by the richness of women’s history in science, invention, medicine, business, and more. Nearly 2/3 of our workforce are women and their different qualities and contributions are highly valued. We have many women who have promoted into leadership roles and many more on their heels. Having a mostly women workforce requires great flexibility and compassion for those different needs especially for working mothers. My call to action is for CEOs to recognize the flexibility and accommodations needed for working mothers so if they choose they can continue to advance in their careers like their male counterparts.”
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