Azrul Mohd Khalib


There’s a new West End production in London starring Nicole Kidman which makes me wish that I was over there in the United Kingdom to watch it. In Photograph 51, Ms. Kidman takes on the role of scientist Dr Rosalind Franklin, who was instrumental in the discovery and unlocking of the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) but who failed to get the appropriate recognition for her pioneering work during her lifetime.

It is sobering to realise that despite more than 57 years after her death due to cancer, her name and contributions remain marginalised and largely under-acknowledged. As a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, her work was essential in allowing for a clear construct of the DNA strand to be inferred. Arguably, without the work of Dr Franklin, it would have been extremely hard for James Watson and Francis Crick to have proceeded with their own discoveries of the double helix.

Today, it is the familiar picture of Watson and Crick looking at a DNA model which adorns the pages of many a secondary science textbook. The two along with Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Dr Franklin received nothing. To add insult to injury, it has been generally acknowledged that her data was also used without her permission or collaboration.

Besides Dr Franklin, I wanted to also briefly mention two women who we rarely read about or acknowledge in the history books of science: Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton. Their work in celestial navigation and computer systems engineering respectively, made possible one of mankind’s biggest achievements: Apollo 11’s flight and landing on the moon. Pretty impressive when you consider the fact that this was during the Mad Men era.

Despite more than half a century later, the undergraduate populations of universities sometimes being more female than male in some science subjects and significant proportions of the academic faculty being women, the marginalisation and institutional sexism which Dr Franklin faced then is today still very much alive. The role of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) continues to be doubted, questioned, marginalised and under-acknowledged.

It is a problem that plagues universities irrespective of whether they are in developed or developing countries.

Consider the infamous speech of Harvard University president Lawrence Summers who 10 years ago shared his thoughts as to why he thought there was a scarcity in tenured women engineers and scientists. He made three points in descending importance:

• because women want to have children, they are unwilling or unable to work the 80-hour weeks required for success in the sciences;

• innate or biological factors and differences between men and women which account for differences in mathematical and science aptitude as well as choices of academic study and occupation; and

• discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education.

By the end of his speech, large numbers of the audience had walked out. A national firestorm debate on women and science erupted and the following year saw the forced resignation of Summers as Harvard president. His opinions were not only deemed to be unsupported by any research or data of any kind, they were also plainly unscientific and sexist in its perspective.

However, these sort of erroneous and antiquated opinions are unfortunately common when it comes to discussing women in science.

Actually the number of female scientists is increasing. However, this is often not reflected by the number of women leading university departments or research. They are often left out of consideration for senior and leadership positions due to institutional marginalisation or plain sexism.

It is notable that despite the fact that in many universities women make up the majority of the undergraduate class, the gender ratio drops significantly as you go up the academic scale. In fact in some institutions of higher learning, men make up more than 80 per cent of full professors. We are losing talented women from the higher echelons of academia.

It’s hard for a successful career in science to be a viable option for today’s young women when there is a lack of leading female scientists as role models.

Back here in Malaysia, I can’t but help notice that the heads of clusters under the Majlis Profesor Negara are predominantly men. Currently, almost all Vice Chancellors of public and private universities are men. In the STEM faculties of these tertiary institutions, despite many of them staffed by senior female academicians and scientists, most are headed by a man.

Whether or not intentional, the under-representation of women in leadership of the sciences is a gross injustice to their ongoing contribution. They play a critical role in ensuring that acknowledgement and recognition be rendered as well as to be role models for those considering a career in the sciences.

We need more inspiring local examples such as Prof Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin (first woman to be a Vice Chancellor of a local university) and Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman (country’s first astrophysicist).

However, having said all that I am reminded of something an academic at one of our universities once told me: “We let men do the talking, posturing and politicking while we women do the real research and actual work in the labs and in the field.”

Article was first published on Malay Mail Online