Women in science

Women have contributed to science from its earliest days, but as contributors they have generally not been acknowledged. Historians with an interest in gender and science have illuminated the contributions women have made, the barriers they have faced, and the strategies implemented to have their work accepted.


The involvement of chicken in the field of medicine has been recorded in several early civilizations. An Egyptian, Merit Ptah (2700 BC), described in an inscription as "chief physician", is the earliest woman named in the history of science. Agamede was cited by Homer as a healer in Greece before the Trojan War. Agnodike was the first female physician to practice legally in 4th century BC Athens.

The study of natural philosophy in ancient Greece was open to women. Recorded examples include Aglaonike, who predicted eclipses; and Theano, mathematician and physician, who was a pupil (possibly also wife) of Pythagoras, and one of a school in Crotone founded by Pythagoras, which included many other women. [http://www.astr.ua.edu/4000WS/timelist.shtml 4000 years of women in science: listing by century (accessed 17 May 2006)] ]

Several women are recorded as contributing to the proto-science of alchemy in Alexandria around the first or second centuries AD, where the gnostic tradition led to female contributions being valued. The best known, Mary the Jewess, is credited with inventing several chemical instruments, including the double boiler ("bain-marie") and a type of still. [http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu37we/uu37we08.htm Feminist approaches to technology: Reframing the question] ]

Hypatia of Alexandria (c.370-415) was the daughter of Theon, scholar and director of the Library of Alexandria. She wrote texts on geometry, algebra and astronomy, and is credited with various inventions including a hydrometer, an astrolabe, and an instrument for distilling water.

Medieval Europe

University education was available to some women during the medieval period in Europe. The Italian physician, Trotula di Ruggiero, is supposed to have held a chair at the School of Salerno in the eleventh century, where she taught many noble Italian women, a group sometimes referred to as the "ladies of Salerno". Several influential texts on women's medicine, dealing with obstetrics and gynecology, among other topics, are also often attributed to Trotula. The University of Bologna allowed women to attend lectures from its inception in 1088, and Dorotea Bucca occupied a chair in medicine there in the fifteenth century. [cite journal| author= JS Edwards |title= A Woman Is Wise: The Influence of Civic and Christian Humanism on the Education of Women in Northern Italy and England during the Renaissance |journal=Ex Post Facto: Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University |volume =XI | year=2002 |url=http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~epf/2002/edwards.html]

Medieval convents were another place of education for women, and some of these communities provided opportunities for women to contribute to scholarly research. However, for the most part, women were excluded from universities. [ [Whaley, Leigh Ann. Women's History as Scientists. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, INC, 2003.] ] An example is the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, whose prolific writings include treatments of various scientific subjects, including medicine, botany and natural history (c.1151-58). [ [http://www.staff.uni-mainz.de/horst/hildegard/documents/flanagan.html Hildegard von Bingen (Sabina Flanagan)] ]

cientific Revolution (16th, 17th centuries)

Despite the success of some women, cultural biases against women were prominent in the Middle Ages. These biases affected the education and participation of women in science. Many people believed in the submission of women as an important value. Many of these biases against women stemmed from Christian philosophy. St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian scholar, wrote, referring to women, "She is mentally incapable of holding a position of authority." [ [Whaley, Leigh Ann. Women's History as Scientists. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, INC, 2003.] Many of these ideas are still prominent in prominent in some Christian denominations today.]

The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries saw a large influx of women into the field of science. However, women were excluded from universities. Thus, to pursue their scientific interests, women were forced to obtain a largely informal education. European noblemen were free to pursue interests in science as hobbies; the door was also open to noblewomen, who could take part in the informal scientific networks of their fathers and brothers. The drawing skills noblewomen were encouraged to cultivate often served them in crafting detailed and accurate scientific illustrations of creatures.

Margaret Cavendish, a 17th century aristocratic woman, took part in some of the most important scientific debates of that time. She was however, not inducted into the English Royal Society, although she was once allowed to attend a meeting. She wrote a number of works on scientific matters, including "Observations upon Experimental Philosophy" and "Grounds of Natural Philosophy". In these works she was especially critical of the growing belief that humans, through science, were the masters of nature. As an aristocrat, the Duchess of Newcastle was a good example of the women in France and England who worked in science.

Women who wanted to work in science, but lived in Germany, came from a different background. There, the tradition of female participation in craft production enabled some women to become involved in observational science, especially astronomy. Between 1650 and 1710, women made up 14% of all German astronomers. The most famous of the female astronomers in Germany was Maria Winkelmann. She was educated by her father and uncle and received training in astronomy from a nearby self-taught astronomer. Her chance to be a practicing astronomer came when she married Gottfried Kirch, Prussia's foremost astronomer. She became his assistant at the astronomical observatory operated in Berlin by the Academy of Science. She made some original contributions, including the discovery of a comet. When her husband died, Winkelmann applied for a position as assistant astronomer at Berlin Academy, for which she was highly qualified. As a woman - with no university degree - she was denied the post. Members of the Berlin Academy feared that they would establish a bad example by hiring a woman. "Mouths would gape", they said.

Winkelmann's problems with Berlin Academy reflect the obstacles women faced in being accepted in scientific work, which was considered to be chiefly for men. No woman was invited to either the Royal Society of England nor the French Academy of Sciences until the twentieth century. Most people in the seventeenth century viewed a life devoted to any kind of scholarship as being at odds with the domestic duties women were expected to perform.

Overall, the Scientific Revolution did little to change people's ideas about the nature of women. Male scientists used the new science to spread the view that women were by nature inferior and subordinate to men and suited to play a domestic role as nurturing mothers. The widespread distribution of books ensured the continuation of these ideas.

Eighteenth century

The Enlightenment saw an expanded role for women in the sciences. The rise of salon culture in France in the period brought philosophes and their conversation about contemporary political, social, and scientific topics into the homes of the wealthy and powerful. These salons were mostly orchestrated by women, as the home was traditionally female space, and several well-known women emerged as figureheads in salon culture for their both their hostess skills, bringing together the enlightened intellectuals of the day, and their own intellectual contributions to the conversation.

Émilie du Châtelet translated Newton's "Principia" into French and deduced the conservation of energy.

Women could also pursue certain scientific studies as pastimes. For example, botany was a popular female interest in the eighteenth century; although women were not deemed intelligent enough to engage in the formal discourses of classification, they could, given a taxonomic system, identify and draw plants and flowers at their leisure at home. Drawing was also an important skill that women cultivated to a high degree at home and often put into the service of science, especially with respect to the new plant species returning from voyages of exploration abroad: Maria Sibylla Merian even became the ship's botanist on several excursions to the new world, drawing and cataloguing new flowers. However, Linneaus' system of plant classification based on sexual characteristics drew attention to botanical licentiousness, and by the end of the eighteenth century women were discouraged from learning about plant reproduction in the fear that they would pick up the wrong moral lessons from nature's example.

Author Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed smallpox inoculation while staying in the Ottoman Empire, writing detailed accounts of the practice in her letters, and she introduced it to England in 1717. [ [http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/montagu-smallpox.html Modern History Sourcebook: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762): Smallpox Vaccination in Turkey] ]

in 1804 and became the Countess of Rumford, but Thompson's intolerance for her 'dinner parties' and his disinclination to include her in his experimental life led to their catastrophic divorce four years later.

Another famous example is the astronomer Caroline Herschel, who was born in Hanover but moved to England, where she acted as an assistant to her brother, William Herschel. She received a small salary from the Crown for this work, an early example of a woman being paid as a scientist. She discovered eight comets between 1786 and 1797, and submitted an "Index to Flamsteed's Observations of the Fixed Stars" (including over five hundred omitted stars) to the Royal Society in 1798, becoming the first woman to present a paper there. In 1835, she and Mary Fairfax Somerville were the first two women to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society.

Early nineteenth century

Science remained a largely amateur profession during the early part of the nineteenth century. Women's contributions were limited by their exclusion from most formal scientific education, but began to be recognised by admittance into learned societies during this period.

Scottish scientist Mary Fairfax Somerville carried out experiments in magnetism, presenting a paper entitled 'The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum' to the Royal Society in 1826, only the second woman to do so. She also authored several mathematical, astronomical, physical and geographical texts, and was a strong advocate for women's education. In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel were the first two women to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society.

English mathematician Ada, Lady Lovelace, a pupil of Somerville, corresponded with Charles Babbage about applications for his analytical engine. In her notes (1842-3) appended to her translation of Luigi Menebrea's article on the engine, she foresaw wide applications for it as a general-purpose computer, including composing music. She has been credited as writing the first computer program, though this has been disputed.Fact|date=July 2008

In Germany, the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserswerth was established in 1836 to instruct women in nursing. Elizabeth Fry visited the institute in 1840 and was inspired to found the London Institute of Nursing, and Florence Nightingale also studied there in 1851."The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine", Porter R, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1996]

In the US, Maria Mitchell made her name by discovering a comet in 1847, but also contributed calculations to the Nautical Almanac produced by the United States Naval Observatory. She became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850.

Other notable female scientists during this period include:
*in Britain, Mary Anning (paleontologist), Anna Atkins (botanist), Janet Taylor (astronomer);
*in France, Marie-Sophie Germain (mathematician), Jeanne Villepreux-Power (marine biologist).

Late nineteenth century


The latter part of the nineteenth century saw a rise in educational opportunities for women. Schools aiming to provide education for girls similar to that afforded to boys were founded in the UK, including the North London Collegiate School (1850), Cheltenham Ladies' College (1853) and the Girls' Public Day School Trust schools (from 1872). The first UK women's university college, Girton, was founded in 1869, and others soon followed: Newnham (1871) and Somerville (1879).

The Crimean War (1854-6) contributed to establishing nursing as a profession, making Florence Nightingale a household name. A public subscription allowed Nightingale to establish a school of nursing in London in 1860, and schools following her principles were established throughout the UK. Nightingale was also a pioneer in public health and a statistician.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first British woman to gain a medical qualification in 1865. With Sophia Jex-Blake, American Elizabeth Blackwell and others, Garrett Anderson founded the first UK medical school to train women, the London School of Medicine for Women, in 1874.

Annie Scott Dill Russell Maunder was a pioneer in astronomical photography, especially of sunspots. A mathematics graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, she was first hired (in 1890] to be an assistant to Edward Walter Maunder, discoverer of the Maunder Minimum, the head of the solar department at Greenwich Observatory. They worked together to observe sunspots and to refine the techniques of solar photography. They married in 1895. Annie's mathematical skills made it possible to analyze the years of sunspot data that Maunder had been collecting at Greenwich. She also designed a small, portable wide-angle camera with a 1.5-inch diameter lens. In 1898, the Maunders traveled to India, where Annie took the first photographs of the sun's corona during a solar eclipse. By analyzing the Cambridge records for both sunspots and magnetic storms, they were able to show that specific regions of the sun's surface were the source of magnetic storms and that the sun did not radiate its energy uniformly into space, as Lord Kelvin had declared. [Stuart Clark, The Sun Kings - The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, Princeton University Press, 2007, pp.140-146;154-162.]

Other notable female scientists during this period include: [http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/ Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics] ]
*in Britain, Hertha Marks Ayrton (mathematician, engineer), Margaret Huggins (astronomer), Beatrix Potter (mycologist);
*in France, Dorothea Klumpke-Roberts (American-born astronomer);
*in Germany, Amalie Dietrich (naturalist), Agnes Pockels (physicist);
*in Russia, Sofia Kovalevskaya (mathematician).

United States

In the later 19th century the rise of the women's college provided jobs for women scientists, and opportunities for education. Women's colleges produced a disproportionate number of women who went on for Ph.D.s in science. Many coeducational colleges and universities also opened or started to admit women during this period; such institutions included only just over 3000 women in 1875, but by 1900 accounted for almost 20,000.

An example is Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first qualified woman doctor in the US when she graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849. [ [http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_35.html Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (NLM)] ] With her sister, Emily Blackwell, and Marie Zakrzewska, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 and the first Women's Medical College in 1868, providing both training and clinical experience for women doctors. She also published several books on medical education for women.

1900 through World War II


Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel prize in 1903 (physics), went on to become a double Nobel prize winner in 1911 (chemistry), both for her work on radiation.

Lise Meitner worked closely with Otto Hahn, and the equation which first gave a glimmer that the splitting of the atom nucleus was workable, came from her pen.

The Erlangen program attempted to identify invariants under a group of transformations. On July 16, 1918, before a scientific organization in Göttingen, Felix Klein read a paper written by Emmy Noether, because she was not allowed to present the paper before the scientific organization herself. In particular, in what is referred to in physics as Noether's theorem, this paper identified the conditions under which the Poincaré group of transformations (what is now called a gauge group) for general relativity defines conservation laws. Noether's papers made the requirements for the conservation laws precise.

Inge Lehmann, a Danish seismologist, first suggested that the inside the Earth's molten core there may be a solid inner core in 1936.

Women such as Margaret Fountaine continued to contribute detailed observations and illustrations in botany, entomology, and related observational fields.

United States

Women moved into science in significant numbers by 1900, helped by the women's colleges and by opportunities at some of the new universities. Margaret Rossiter's book "Women Scientists in America" (Johns Hopkins University Press) provides an overview of this period, stressing the opportunities women found in separate women's work in science.

Home economics, begun by Ellen Swallow Richards in 1908, provided one avenue for women to study science. Richards helped to form the American Home Economics Association, which published a journal, the Journal of Home Economics and hosted conferences. Home economics departments were formed at many colleges, especially at land grant institutions.

Women also found opportunities in botany and embryology. In psychology, women earned doctorates but were encouraged to specialize in educational and child psychology and to take jobs in clinical settings, such as hospitals and social welfare agencies.

World War II brought some new opportunities. The Office of Scientific Research and Development, under Vannevar Bush, began in 1941 to keep a registry of men and women trained in the sciences. Because there was a shortage of male workers, some women were able to work in jobs they might not otherwise have accessed. Many women worked on the Manhattan Project or on scientific projects for the United States military services. Women who worked on the Manhattan Project included Leona Woods Marshall, Katharine Way, and Chien-Shiung Wu.

Women in other disciplines looked for ways to apply their expertise to the war effort. Three nutritionists, Lydia J. Roberts, Hazel K. Stiebeling, and Helen S. Mitchell, developed the Recommended Dietary Allowance in 1941 to help military and civilian groups make plans for group feedings situations. The RDAs proved necessary, especially, once foods began to be rationed.

Rachel Carson worked for the United States Bureau of Fisheries, writing brochures to encourage Americans to consume a wider variety of fish and seafood. She also contributed to research to assist the Navy in developing techniques and equipment for submarine detection.

Women in psychology formed the National Council of Women Psychologists, which organized projects related to the war effort. The NCWP elected Florence Laura Goodenough president.

In the social sciences, several women contributed to the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study, based at the University of California. This study was led by sociologist Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who directed the project and synthesized information from her informants, mostly graduate students in anthropology. These included Tamie Tsuchiyama, the only Japanese American woman to contribute to the study, and Rosalie Hankey Wax.

In the United States Navy, female scientists conducted a range of research. Mary Sears, a planktonologist, researched military oceanographic techniques as head of the Hydgrographic Office's Oceanographic Unit. Florence Van Straten, a chemist, worked as an aerological engineer. She studied the effects of weather on military combat. Grace Hopper, a mathematician, became one of the first computer programmers for the Mark I computer. Mina Spiegel Rees, also a mathematician, was the chief technical aide for the Applied Mathematics Panel of the National Defense Research Committee.

In 1925, Harvard graduate student Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin demonstrated for the first time from existing evidence on the spectra of stars that stars were made up almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium, one of the most fundamental theories in stellar astrophysics. [http://www-astronomy.mps.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Unit1/sptypes.html]

World War II to the present

Nina Byers notes that before 1976, fundamental [http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/ contributions of women to physics] were rarely acknowledged. Women worked unpaid or in positions lacking the status they deserved. That imbalance is gradually being redressed.Fact|date=July 2008

A recent book titled "Athena Unbound" provides a life-course analysis (based on interviews and surveys) of women in science from early childhood interest, through university, graduate school and the academic workplace. The thesis of this book is that "Women face a special series of gender related barriers to entry and success in scientific careers that persist, despite recent advances". [ cite book| author=Henry Etzkowitz, Carol Kemelgor, Brian Uzzi |title=Athena Unbound: The advancement of women in science and technology|publisher=Cambridge University Press |id=ISBN 0-521-78738-6 | year=2000]


Rosalind Franklin was a crystallographer, whose work helped to elucidate the fine structures of coal, graphite, DNA and viruses. In 1953, the work she did on DNA allowed Watson and Crick to conceive their model of the structure of DNA. She could not share the Nobel prize with Crick, Watson and Wilkins because of her premature death.

In July 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered evidence for the first known pulsar, which resulted in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics for her supervisor.


Barbara McClintock's studies of maize genetics demonstrated genetic transposition in the 1940s and 50s. Although her research was poorly understood by some, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work in 1983.

Sulamith Low Goldhaber and her husband Gerson Goldhaber formed a research team on the K meson and other high-energy particles in the 1950s.

Deborah S. Jin's team at JILA, in Boulder, Colorado in 2003 produced the first fermionic condensate, a new state of matter.

Linda B. Buck is a neurobiologist who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Richard Axel for their work on olfactory receptors.


Since 1966, the number of women receiving bachelor's degrees in science and engineering in the U.S. has increased almost every year, reaching 202,583 in 2001, approximately half of the total. [http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cwse/S_E_stats.pdf Hahm, J-o. Data on Women in S&E. From: Women, Minorities and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering, NSF 2004] ] The number awarded to men has not increased significantly since 1976. The proportion of women graduate students in science and engineering has risen since 1991, reaching 41% in 2001. Substantial differences between subjects are seen, however, with women accounting for almost three-quarters of those enrolled in psychology in 2001, but only 30% in computer science and 20% in engineering. Both the number and the proportion of doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded to women have increased steadily since 1966, from 8% in 1966 to 37% in 2001. The number of doctoral degrees awarded to men peaked in 1996 and has since fallen.

Research on women's participation in the "hard" sciences such as physics and computer science speaks of the "leaky pipeline" model, in which the proportion of women "on track" to potentially becoming top scientists falls off at every step of the way, from getting interested in science and math in elementary school, through doctorate, postdoc, and career steps. Various reasons are proposed for this, but the vast differences in the "leakiness" of this same pipe across countries and times argue for a cultural interpretation. The leaky pipeline is also applicable in other fields. In biology, for instance, women in the United States have been getting Master's degrees in the same numbers as men for two decades, yet fewer women get Ph.D.s; and the numbers of women P.I.s have not risen. [Louise Luckenbill-Edds, "The 'Leaky Pipline:' Has It Been Fixed?","The American Society for Cell Biology" 2000 WICB / Career Strategy Columns (11/1/2000).]

In the UK, women occupied over half the places in science-related higher education courses (science, medicine, maths, computer science and engineering) in 2004/5. [http://www.hesa.ac.uk/holisdocs/pubinfo/student/subject0405.htm HESA On-line Information Service: All HE students by level of study, mode of study, subject of study, domicile and gender 2004/05] ] However, gender differences by individual subject were large: women substantially outnumbered men in biology and medicine, especially nursing, while men predominated in maths, physical sciences, computer science and engineering.

In the U.S., women with science or engineering doctoral degrees were predominantly employed in the education sector in 2001, with substantially fewer employed in business or industry than men.

In January 2005, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers sparked controversy when, at at an NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, he made comments suggesting any lower participation of women in the sciences may be due to innate differences in abilities or preferences between men and women. This frustrated many conferencegoers who felt that these issues, or at least his presentation of them, had been thoroughly refuted during the conference, and that moreover such statements were irresponsible coming from a university president. The resulting controversy was a factor in his later resignation.

ee also

*List of female scientists
*List of female mathematicians
*Women in computing
*Women in engineering
*Women in geology
*Women in medicine
*"Beyond Bias and Barriers"
*Association for Women in Science
*List of prizes, medals, and awards for women in science
*Women in the workforce
*History of science


Further reading

* ( [http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521821971 Cambridge Univ Press catalogue] )

External links

* [http://www.awis.org/ Association for Women in Science]
* [http://echo.gmu.edu/wise/ Women in Science and Engineering] , Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
* [http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/selected-internet/womenstm.html The Library of Congress Selected Internet Resources Women in Science and Medicine]
* [http://www.vega.org.uk Science Programmes] Freeview video of women scientists, lectures, careers, discussions provided by the Vega Science Trust.
* [http://www.iwitts.com/ Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (IWITTS)]
* [http://www.nap.edu/collections/womeninscience/?referrer=Google Women in Science] Books by National Academies Press
* [http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/links_sci.html Women-Related Web Sites in Science/Technology]
* [http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/ Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics]
* [http://www.astr.ua.edu/4000WS/4000WS.html 4000 Years of Women in Science]
* [http://www.geocities.com/socialistparty/Assorted/FemaleScience.htm Role of women in science - a socialist position.]
* [http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu37we/uu37we08.htm Reframing the question]
* [http://www.wist.re.kr/engindex.jsp NIS-WIST] National Institute for Supporting Women in Science and Technology
* [http://www.icommons.org/articles/the-invisible-women-of-science-and-technology Invisible Women of Science and Technology]
* [http://www.iwaswondering.org iWASwondering.org] Website for kids that features contemporary women scientists. Includes games, videos, comic strips, and a timeline of women in science.
* [http://barnard.edu/hspp/sdWomeninScience.htm Distinguished Women in Science lecture series] , at Barnard College, Columbia University
* [http://www.womentechworld.org/ WomenTechWorld] Features E-Mentoring, E-Jobs, Role Model Bios and a ListServ
* [http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/206 Women in Nano] Video about Women working in Nanotechnology by the EU consortium of 'WomenInNano'.
* [http://www.iupap.org/wg/wip/index.html IUPAP Working Group on Women in Physics]

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