By Sofia Olendraru
Image Credit: Anoop Dey and Clarissa Pereira
If I ask my two nine-year-old brothers to name a female scientist, they might tell me about Jane Goodall, and perhaps Mary Anning too, although it will take them a few minutes to remember them. If they’re feeling particularly kind, they might name me. But the one scientist whose name they will exclaim within seconds without fail, is Marie Curie.
Curie was undoubtedly an extraordinary scientist whose achievements were nothing short of exceptional – she definitely deserves to be mentioned. But 110 years from her record-breaking, history-making second Nobel Prize win, we have reached a point where she is the only female scientist we do mention; where we fail to give proper recognition or even simple acknowledgement to any other women in STEM, and we worship her instead. Chemist and writer Marelene Rayner- Canham notes that “[o]f all women scientists, [Marie Curie] is by far the best known, and numerous biographies of her have been published. Yet […] several of these biographies are hagiographies” . Indeed, ever since her ground-breaking discoveries, Marie Curie has been hailed as a goddess; our “Lady of Radium”,1 as she was once known.
This portrayal is unfair on more than one level. Firstly, it immediately puts any and all other women at an obvious disadvantage. The biographer Sharon McGrayne wrote that “by creating an almost impossible standard for women scientists to live up to, Marie Curie may have made their professional progress more difficult. Although universities did not expect every male scientist to be an Albert Einstein, women scientists were continually measured against Marie Curie – and naturally found wanting.”2 Though she raises excellent points in its latter part, I do not fully agree with McGrayne’s statement. While it can be argued that Marie Curie was not particularly passionate about the inclusion of women in science, in spite of being a role model for many of them, she never deliberately hindered any woman’s access to a scientific career – she did not create that “almost impossible standard” by herself. Marie Curie reached heights that no other woman had ever reached before, that not that many men had reached either, and it would be incredibly disrespectful, not to mention extremely sexist, to suggest that she is to blame for anything concerning her achievements – it’s hardly her fault that she was reduced to the patriarchy’s token female scientist. To echo McGrayne’s comment, no one told Einstein to tone himself down and to make room for other men in the scientific world. On the other hand, we see no space for other women to be celebrated next to Marie Curie, not because she herself takes up too much of it, but because women were never given enough space in the first place. Nowadays it seems the bar set by Curie’s achievements has become more of a stick to beat other women with, telling them, if you are not Marie Curie, you are not enough. But I am not Marie Curie, and nor do I want to be. Curie’s life and her work were phenomenal and that deserves to be celebrated. But her story should inspire, not intimidate.
Indeed, by comparing every woman who decides to pursue a career in science to Marie Curie, we perpetuate a harmful narrative that repeatedly discourages and holds back women within the STEM fields. A 2018 study by New Scientist pointed out that in that year, three times as many boys as girls chose A-level Physics.3 This systemic exclusion of women from science is a wide-spanning issue that touches on many aspects from not being taken seriously due to stereotypes, to workplace harassment and bullying – and it starts with a shocking shortage of role models for young girls and women to look up to. Of course, representation doesn’t solve everything, but it serves its purpose. Nowadays, a boy who decides to follow a career in science probably has heard of the great Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and many more, but his worth as a scientist isn’t being measured up against them and their achievements every step of the way. On the other hand, a girl in the same situation is probably sick of only ever hearing about Marie Curie, as if she were the only female scientist in the entire history of science. By looking at a typical textbook, one might to think she was – my A-level Physics textbook mentioned over 30 male scientists, and only one woman: it’s not hard to guess who (hint – it’s not Lise Meitner, although she definitely should have been included). This already damaging pattern is even worse when we look at the other side of the coin: if both the boy and the girl in this situation are used to mostly only hearing about the achievements of white male scientists, how are they supposed to believe anyone else (aside from Marie Curie) can succeed in science? And a role model doesn’t have to be someone who has won a Nobel Prize (or two, in Curie’s case); it could be a teacher, or a lecturer. And this is exactly where the problem becomes even greater: where the initial lack of representation, something which could easily be fixed, snowballs into women having to work much harder than their male colleagues to gain recognition and credibility, to gain access to funding, even just to get the job in the first place, a job which they might eventually quit when they see how male-biased the academic system is, with little to no support for women who might want to start a family4 or considering the amount of unpaid work women do (75% globally as of 2015)5, not to mention the sexual harassment they will very likely face6 – and so we end up seeing much fewer women than men in the STEM workforce (a study by WISE Campaign revealed that in 2019, women made up only 24% of the core-STEM workforce)7. But maybe if we began at the beginning, if we showed both girls and boys from a young age that women, too, belong in science, by telling not only Marie Curie’s story, but many more too, then maybe women would be able to pursue their dreams and ambitions in STEM instead of being driven away as many are nowadays.
And of course, those stories do exist. If you look them up, you can find out about Lise Meitner and her discovery of nuclear fission, and of the Nobel Prize win that accompanied it, one that she was unfairly left out of.8 You can read about Alice Ball, the first woman and first African American person to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and who developed the first effective cure for leprosy in a time when the need for it was dire.9
You can learn about the British astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who had to move all the way to the United States to pursue her education because the University of Cambridge refused to grant degrees to women at the time, and who went on to determine the chemical composition of stars in what was later described as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.10 But that’s the problem – in order to learn about these women and what they did for science, you will have to look them up. You will have to seek those stories out yourself, because unlike the many male scientists you may have learnt about in school, you will most likely not have heard about these women unless you made a particular effort, even though you should have. Because after all, what is the point of these stories, if they are never told to us?
And it is not enough to only tell those stories, we must also ensure that they are told well – Marie Curie’s is not. She has been put on a pedestal such that no one can even get close to her, and I believe we do her a great disservice when we romanticise her story in that way. Marie Curie was neither goddess nor saint. She did not win her two Nobel prizes thanks to some stroke of luck or some magical powers; she had to fight to earn her place in a system that was designed against women and against foreigners. She made mistakes and was not always successful, and she had to overcome countless challenges before she became who we nowadays remember her as. Marie Curie was a scientist with a brilliant mind, and most importantly with a remarkable capacity for hard work, and an ability to keep going and keep pushing herself even in the face of adversity. Marie Curie was human.
The irony of starting an article with the point that we need to stop talking only about Marie Curie, and then spending most of said article talking about her, is not lost on me. But I confess that in the research I did to write this article, in every retelling of her story that I read, all the details about her life that I learned, I have come to love and admire Curie more than ever. I feel as though I know her so much better, and so much more authentically than I did before. It is high time we started telling her story the way it deserves to be told, and it is time we start telling the stories of many more scientists, so that every girl and woman who is listening may one day write her own.
1 Rayner-Canham, Marelene and Geoffrey, Women in Chemistry, American
Chemical Society Books, 1998
2 McGrayne, Sharon, Nobel Prize Women in Science, Birch Lane Press: New York, 1993
3 Jamieson, Valerie, “Women in physics: why there’s a problem and how we can solve it”, New Scientist, magazine issue 3203 , published 10 November 2018
4 McKinsey Global Institute (2015), The Power of Paritiy: how advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth
5 For Female Scientists, There’s No Good Time to Have Children – The Atlantic
6 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24994
7 2019 Workforce Statistics – One million women in STEM in the UK – Welcome to the WISE Campaign
8 Lise Meitner – Wikipedia
9 Alice Ball – Wikipedia
10 Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – Wikipedia