Under the magnifying glass: the long journey of women in science

Every year in October, the zdi heroines tell us what it means to be a woman in the STEM field. They describe MINT as a creative and meaningful field of activity that could not be more multifaceted. It is a modern phenomenon that young women can make their own decisions about an apprenticeship, a course of study and a career. It is worth taking a look at the historical woman in science in order to be able to better classify today's educational, social and economic developments and issues relating to STEM and girls.

The 2019 IQB Education Trend: Girls lack confidence

The courses of the zdi networks enjoy a high proportion of girls of almost 50 percent - and have been for years. Because STEM and girls simply belong together. The long-standing efforts of the zdi networks are also strengthened by the current education study by the Conference of Ministers of Education from last week. This study determined the nationwide STEM education standard of 45.000 ninth graders nationwide and came to the conclusion: Girls are at least equal to boys in STEM subjects and often perform even better. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science and technology as a boy's domain? That is just as outdated as the assumption that social studies are only for girls. The study also proves that North Rhine-Westphalia is the only federal state in which the mathematics skills of girls have improved significantly.

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-1762) was the first German doctor to receive her doctorate in 1754 at the University of Halle. Before writing her dissertation, Erxleben wrote an academic paper on the economic, social and moral mechanisms that keep women from studying.

What emerges from the education study, however, is not quite as gratifying: Girls have little confidence in their own abilities when it comes to STEM. This discrepancy between true talent and a lack of self-esteem can have fatal consequences. For example, if the students' lack of self-confidence affects their choice of advanced courses, training and studies. Current figures from the Federal Employment Agency suggest that, at 15,4 percent, the proportion of women employed in MINT professions was still well below average in 2019. Interest, talent and passion for the MINT field does not seem to motivate many girls and young women to also locate themselves professionally in the MINT field. If girls are objectively interested in MINT and are also talented, then the girls' lack of self-confidence must be psychologically and culturally based and historically have grown into a kind of collective memory. zdi.NRW takes a close look at the cultural history of women in science in order to get closer to the answer to the question of the lack of self-confidence among talented MINT-interested girls.

Women and Science from Antiquity to Modern Times

The history of women in science was and still is closely linked to historical, social, economic and educational realities. From the beginning of written records it has been documented that women are seldom given a full role in society. Similarly, they are denied access to education. This is the case in ancient, medieval and modern times. There are exceptions, for example, since the Middle Ages, a few selected women have had the opportunity to learn to read and write in the monastery as nuns in order to pass on ancient knowledge. However, women are only allowed this access to education behind the closed monastery doors.

In the Middle Ages the first universities were founded under the umbrella of the Church. It is unthinkable that women could enroll for a degree. Educated women outside of a monastery are persecuted as heretics and witches. At the beginning of modern times, scientists were increasingly attracted to the courts of noblemen. Some noblewomen also learn to read and write as a pastime and view science as witty entertainment. In the Age of Enlightenment, women continue to be denied access to institutional science, but wealthy and aristocratic women are beginning to acquire knowledge in private contexts. On the one hand, wealth is a prerequisite for acquiring knowledge. On the other hand, women depend on the support of their husbands, fathers or brothers, who themselves have access to science and let the women participate in it. For thousands of years, knowledge was the exclusive property of the male population. The reason for the non-existent position of women within science was their permanent discrimination due to a lack of educational, access and career opportunities.

Picture gallery: The first female scientists

Pesesheth (2600 BC)

Peseschet (2600 BC) is the first woman to appear in the history of science. The Egyptian practiced medicine and also trained over 100 midwives.

En Hedu'Anna (2300 BC)

En Hedu'Anna (2300 BC) was the leading astronomical priestess in Mesopotamia and practiced astronomy as well as surveying and agriculture.

Hypatia of Alexandria (AD 400)

Hypatia of Alexandria (AD 400) was the first woman to teach astronomy, mathematics and philosophy in the Museion of Alexandria. 

Women in science at the turn of the millennium: From the beginning of women's studies and the first exceptional female scientists

At the beginning of the 18th century, the first schools for girls were established in Germany. By attending a girls' school, the daughters of wealthy families are prepared for later domestic duties as wives and mothers. Science-based instruction is reserved for boys at secondary schools. It was not until around 1880 that the first girls' grammar schools were established, where young women could obtain a university entrance qualification. The first Abitur examinations for women took place in Berlin in 1886. Despite this, up until 1900 there were no mathematical and scientific classes at girls' secondary schools either.

At the end of the 19th century, the professional field of mathematics and physics teachers emerged. While this means that women are now being accepted in a scientific profession for the first time, it does not mean that these women are actually being scientifically trained. At that time women's rights activists were for the first time emphatically demanding the admission of women to university studies, according to the historian Irene Franken: "In 1891 the topic was first discussed in the Reichstag, which was met with laughter. Further debates in 1896, 1898 and 1900 indicated that the deputies were beginning to recognize the seriousness of the desire. Now, with fatherly concerns, the question of the overtaxing of young girls’ brains by academic material was discussed and in 1900 the first female students were able to enroll in Baden “on an experimental basis.” Around the turn of the century, around 19 male students were studying law at the 50.000 universities in Germany , medicine, philosophy and theology. The Baden universities of Heidelberg and Freiburg were the first German universities to allow women to study. Back then, what still applies today: If you want to enroll at a university, you have to have a high school diploma. Since it has only been possible for girls to graduate from high school for a few years, the number of women enrolled was limited. In addition, women were by no means welcomed with open arms at the universities; many professors and fellow students felt disturbed by the young women. In a European comparison, Germany turns out to be backward here. In 1909, women were finally able to enroll at Mecklenburg universities, introducing women's studies throughout Germany. That was 110 years ago and Marie Curie had already won her first Nobel Prize. Women with a degree are now officially qualified to work in an academic institution.

Between progress and tradition: women and science in the 20th century

From 1921, women have the option of habilitation, which far fewer women than men make use of to this day. Even after the introduction of women's studies, women are discriminated against in the scientific field and even the greatest mathematical or scientific achievements are not recognised. Pioneers of science like Marie Curie, Emmy Noether or Lise Meitner had to fight contempt and ridicule all their lives. Even in the course of the 20th century, the scientific achievements of women are not duly recognized: since the Nobel Prizes began to be awarded 118 years ago, a full 3% of the Nobel Prizes in natural sciences have gone to women. If one looks at the further historical development of women in science, then this too is closely linked to prevailing social norms. At the time of National Socialism, the number of female students was limited to 10%. It did not fit with the hierarchical image of the Nazis that women were educated in universities and did not fulfill their duties as wives and mothers. This was also the case in the post-war period. The Adenauer era is shaped, so to speak, by a heteronormative form of society. It was becoming for women not to work.

It was not until the 1960s that feminist protest movements, especially among students, emerged due to the ongoing discrimination against women. Various autonomous women's groups and networks are founded that try to draw public attention to discrimination against women. In 1977, the so-called housewife marriage, which legally obliges married women to keep house, is abolished. In fact, up to this point, a wife cannot study, get an education, or work in a profession without her husband's consent. It is not without reason that the 1970s are considered a great moment and the initial spark on the way to equal rights for men and women - both in the private, as well as in the professional and scientific context. Since then, more and more women have found their way to universities and, increasingly, into scientific training professions. In 2006, the 50% mark was broken and, for the first time, as many women as men studied at German universities.

Picture gallery: Female pioneers in the modern history of science

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. To date, she is the only woman to have received two Nobel Prizes: in 1903 for the discovery and research of radioactivity and in 1911 for the discovery and research of the elements radium and polonium.

Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935)

Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935) was the first woman to habilitate in mathematics and also the founder of modern algebra. She is considered the most important mathematician of all time.

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1969)

The nuclear physicist Lise Meitner (1878 – 1969) was a pioneer in many respects: she was the first female research assistant at Berlin University, Germany's first female professor and the first female member of a scientific academy.

Overcoming barriers with gender-specific promotion of young talent

Today, women enjoy the same rights as men and confidently demand treatment on an equal footing. If you look at the systemic discrimination and degradation of women that has lasted for several thousand years and was only legally overcome almost 20 years ago, then it is not surprising that heteronormative social structures can still be found and that these structures are deeply rooted. Even today, in some companies, men are paid more than women for the same work. So it's no wonder that girls and young women are struggling with a lack of self-confidence, especially in professional fields that are once again strictly male, such as the STEM field. If you focus on the results of the education study by the Conference of Ministers of Education, then it can be said that this lack of self-confidence among girls and young women must be overcome quickly in order to prevent a future shortage of MINT specialists. Because MINT thrives on the wealth of ideas of all people and the challenges of the future can only be mastered together.

zdi.NRW has been providing important impetus in the field of extracurricular MINT education for 14 years and has specialized in gender-specific promotion of young talent for just as long. Both girls and boys are intensively promoted in their inclinations in the courses of the zdi networks and encouraged to turn their passion into a profession. Self-confidence in one's own abilities is the be-all and end-all for self-realization, success and enjoyment in everyday school, study, training or professional life. This is exactly where the zdi networks come in with their range of courses so that every young person has the courage to do exactly what they enjoy.

Here you will find information on the literature used and recommendations:

Auga et al. (2010): The Gender of Science. On the history of female academics in the 19th and 20th centuries, Campus Verlag Frankfurt/New York.

Federal Employment Agency (2019): focus on the labor market. STEM professions, under: .

Crocker et al. (2012): 4000 years of women in science. Under: http://4kyws.ua.edu/.

Dettloff, Werner (1973): The Significance of the Universal Church for the University of the Middle Ages, Echter Verlag Würzburg.

Franken, Irene (1995): "Yes, studying women is difficult!" Students and lecturers at Cologne University until 1933, M & T Verlag Cologne.

Stanat et al. (2019): IQB education trend 2018. Mathematical and scientific skills at the end of secondary level I in the second country comparison, Waxmann Munster/New York.

Weber, Max (1919): science as a profession, In: Intellectual work as a profession. Four lectures before the Freistudentischer Bund. First Lecture. Munich.

Here you can find out everything about how zdi.NRW is committed to more girls and young women in STEM: www.zdi-heldinnen.de

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