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Outstanding Women of Danish Science

The centre of the earth is solid: discovery by Danish scientist Inge Lehmann

Women have been systematically overlooked in the annals of the scientific research achievements of individuals. In telling the stories of three prominent female 20th-century Danish scientists, the museum curator Carina Serritzlew and science historian Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen pin down the background for the under-recruitment of women in scientific research past and present.

KVINFO/14.11.2006 We need to get more women involved in research work; this was the conclusion of a think tank set up last year by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. It might indeed be true that more women are being recruited than ever before, but they are still underrepresented when compared with their male colleagues. At the same time, an accumulated historical precedent continues to characterise the procedures of credit, professional profiles and gender perception in the research world.

Even though development is slow, the work of the think tank shows that there has been a shift in the perception of the connection between gender and scientific research. Where earlier it had been a question of what women had to offer research, today the issue is what research can do to attract more women.

Domineering, tough and aggressive
The think tank stresses that the cause of the persistent differential treatment is to be found in a complex interplay between many different factors. In a historical perspective this is linked to women’s late access to further education and academic professions. But three historical markers demonstrate how structures and norms in the Danish research environment have also been party to hindering women in their quest for a career in the sciences.

In 1925, the 50th anniversary of women’s equal access to higher education was celebrated with the publication of Kvindelige Akademikere 1875-1925 [Women Academics 1875-1925]. By way of introduction, the editor Lis Jakobsen explained why only a few women felt called upon to pursue an academic career even though they had achieved good results as students: 

"Science, in common with art, […] demands total commitment: complete abandonment to work, complete ruthlessness as regards all else. If this demand is not met, great achievements will remain out of reach.

Jakobsen concluded that only the woman who devoted herself totally, and could “forget her father and mother, her beloved, her children”, would reach the splendid heights of scientific scholarship.

While preparing the book, Jakobsen had spoken with many female scientists about the problems they experienced in ‘abandoning’ themselves to the scientific life. They had all responded that their responsibilities to husband, children and home prevented them from embarking upon an academic career with long-term prospects. The demand of total abandonment to science, combined with the social expectations of the role of wife, made it harder for a woman to forge a career in her chosen discipline.

The situation had changed 25 years later – not least because the war years had prepared the way for more women to enter the labour market. This also held true of academia, were women were beginning to have a stronger profile. In her contribution to Kvindens Aarhundrede [Women’s Century], published in 1949, the dentist Hedvig Lidforss Strømgren could thus note that “in Denmark quite a number of women working in the sciences enjoy the same respect as their male colleagues”.

Despite this apparent success for Danish women in the sciences, by way of conclusion Hedvig Strømgren was nonetheless obliged to question “why more [women] do not pursue that path when the talent is there”.

Like Lis Jakobsen, Strømgren was of the opinion that the answer could be found in women’s struggle to “sacrifice everything for the idea”. Furthermore, she pointed out that for centuries women had been “kept down in this area”. And, finally, women’s household duties meant that female scientists had a dual work role in comparison with their male colleagues.

If we fast forward another 25 years we reach Kvinder: arbejde og intellektuel udvikling [Women: work and intellectual development], written by the mathematician Else Høyrup, published in 1974. Høyrup endorses Jakobsen’s and Strømgren’s earlier explicatory models and goes on to describe the background for discrimination against women in the academic world as a normative underestimation of women’s abilities. Intellect is primarily considered to be a male attribute, and therefore young women are not encouraged to pursue intellectual development to the same extent as young men.

Høyrup identified a vicious circle within the academic world: female students were short of female role models; therefore they did not consider an academic career to be a possibility. The situation at institutes of mathematics and physics was, in Høyrup’s opinion, particularly grave. The few women who did manage to achieve an academic career in these subjects must therefore be cast in a special mould:

“They are far more active, independent and outwardly confident than is usual in either women or men. And they are either, ‘despite’ a feminine appearance, unusually tough or else they have what in a woman would be considered a rather domineering and somewhat aggressive manner.”

In addition, Høyrup observed a number of common traits in academically successful women: they were married to men who participated in family life at home and who supported their wives’ professional work; their parents had encouraged the intellectual development of a daughter; many of them had played with boys when they were children.

From the Matthew to Matilda effect
The differential treatment highlighted by Jakobsen, Strømgren and Høyrup is an ingrained aspect of the research environment, not just in Denmark but worldwide. In 1968 the American science sociologist Robert Merton pointed out a clear tendency in research literature to give preferential treatment to famous scientists at the expense of lesser-known scholars, even though there might not be a scientific basis for this. In naming the practice the ‘Matthew effect’, Merton was alluding to the parable of the talents in the Gospel according to St Matthew, in which Jesus says:

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew 25: 29, KJV).

The Matthew effect means that it is difficult for researchers lower down the academic status ladder to get a look in, but once across the threshold they find it easier to gain recognition for their work. In cases of scientific priority, for example, there is a tendency to give the credit to the most well-known researchers rather than their comparatively unknown colleagues.

This holds true for men and women alike. But, as the American science historian Margaret W. Rossiter argued in 1993, women have been particularly vulnerable to the downside of the Matthew effect. It is a well-documented fact that women have been systematically overlooked when credit is handed out to individuals for their research achievements.

Rossiter therefore suggests that the Matthew effect should rightfully be called the Matilda effect, which she named after the American advocate of women’s rights Matilda J. Gage (1826-1898). Although she was active in several research fields, Gage is almost unknown today and is thus a good illustration of the Matilda effect.

The Matilda effect is active in the various social, personal and institutional factors influencing the different ways in which men and women pursue an education and a career in the sciences.

Young research candidates often have a good role model, mentor or perhaps even a patron. But for as long as women continue to be in short supply among the ranks of prominent scientists, and for as long as gender continues to be an important factor for role models, mentors and candidates, this system of credit attribution will continue to make it difficult for women to follow a career in scientific research.

And this practice thus reinforces those gender differences which also tell us a lot about the existing power structures in the research world, as well as the status of science in the wider community.

Not even Robert Merton’s own work could escape the Matilda effect. Most of the documentation used by Merton in his original 1968 article was the work of his ‘invisible’ collaborator Harriet Zuckerman. She ought to have been credited as co-author, which Merton did – much later – admit. Zuckerman subsequently overcame the Matilda effect and went on to become a much respected authority on the sociology of science.

The careers of three Danish women scientists illustrate the Matilda effect at work in scientific research:

“Not easy for a woman” – Inge Lehmann (1888-1993)
Inge Lehmann is today internationally renowned for her ‘discovery’ that the Earth’s core is made up of two parts, a finding which she published in a 1936 article with the short title “P”. The article was based on Lehmann’s meticulous seismological observations, summed up in the hypothesis of a small solid core. It was, however, a hypothesis, and was not verified until the 1960s, by means of, among other things, data from the massive 1960 earthquake in Chile.

Inge Lehmann felt both sides of the Matilda effect. As a young seismologist she experienced some opposition in the scientific setting because she was a woman. On the other hand, in the later phase of her career, when she received acclaim for her work, she found herself in a position where her name and reputation were accorded great prestige in research circles.

In 1906 Inge Lehmann passed her upper secondary school leaving examination at Hanna Adlers Fællesskole [Hanna Adler’s Co-educational School], which later became Sortedams Gymnasium. The school accepted pupils of both genders, and this was to have an effect on her outlook, as she explained in 1947:

“There was no undue pressure, and we escaped being encumbered with many of the prejudices by means of which people make life difficult for one another. We grew up boys and girls together, equal numbers of each, or thereabouts. We shared lessons, sport and play. We were a mixed bunch, unalike as individuals; but divisions along lines of gender, race or social circumstances did not exist for us.”

Lehmann went on to the University of Copenhagen where she studied mathematics. She spent a while at Newnham College in Cambridge and was amazed by the puritanical restrictions placed on the female students there. They were not allowed, for example, to visit or be visited by a male student friend unless a chaperone was present. In 1925 Lehmann became affiliated with Den danske Gradmaaling [measurement of degrees] where the director, mathematician Niels Erik Nørlund, encouraged her in the direction of seismology.

In 1928, now the newly-appointed director of the seismological department of the Royal Danish Geodetic Institute, Lehmann was the only female seismologist in Denmark and indeed in the international scientific community. According to her two male colleagues, Bruce Bolt and Erik Hjortenberg, she thus had to draw on great inner strength to stick to and cultivate her interest in seismology. Her cousin’s grandson, Nils Groes, described this dilemma when speaking at Inge Lehmann’s funeral:

“It was not easy for a woman to force her way through the mathematic and scientific milieu during the first half of the twentieth century. As she said to me: ‘If you did but know how many incompetent men I had to compete with – in vain.’ Inge was probably not always diplomatic. Be that as it may – she achieved major scientific results.”

There is thus little doubt that Inge Lehmann experienced a certain degree of the Matilda effect. It is a matter of opinion as to whether this was also true of the response to her most significant finding: her hypothesis of a solid core within the molten interior of the Earth. The distinguished New Zealand seismologist Karl E. Bullen has remarked that it was a few years before the leading seismologists of the day were prepared to acknowledge that a woman could be responsible for such an important new understanding.

On the other hand, in Viden uden grænser. Dansk Naturvidenskabs Historie 1920-70 [Knowledge without Borders: the History of Danish Science 1920-70], published in 2006, Helge Kragh, Maiken Lolck and Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen argue that the reason international recognition came somewhat belatedly to Inge Lehmann was not that she was a woman or hailed from a small country, but quite simply that it took time to assemble adequate data to corroborate her hypothesis.

Ultimately, Lehmann was accorded great professional respect. She retired in 1953, but continued with her scientific work. She spent a great deal of time in the US where she was involved in, among other things, the far-reaching Project Vela Uniform, which was primarily funded by the military. The overall objective of the project was to monitor underground nuclear testing by means of the World Wide Standardized Seismographic Network. Lehmann’s association with Vela Uniform was of great political significance in that she helped to give the project scientific credibility and prestige despite its close connections with military interests.

“We can never be one and the same” – Marie Hammer (1907-2002)
Unlike Inge Lehmann, Marie Hammer was not affiliated with any one scientific institute. Lehmann lived alone, whereas Hammer had a husband and four children alongside her main scientific interest: the collection and classification of oribatid mites.

She carried out her research during many trips abroad, but also at home after her children had gone to bed. This dual role of scientist and housewife was a subject that came up in many of the interviews Marie Hammer gave to Danish newspapers and magazines.

At first glance, Marie Hammer would seem to be an example of a woman who had to forgo a research career within an established framework in order to fulfil her responsibilities in the home and thus work as an independent researcher. However, her story also demonstrates that, in spite of everything, it was possible for a female scientist working from home to hold her own with the help of great willpower and with the support of her spouse.

Ole Hammer, who was a zoologist and director of Statens Biavlsforsøg [a research project dealing with bees], did not question his wife’s choice of an itinerant scientific calling. On the contrary, he supported her and took care of the housekeeping, with help from a variety of housekeepers, while she was off on her travels. Marie Hammer has said that she could not have achieved what she did as mother, wife and scientist without her husband’s understanding and regular income.

Gender and marital arrangement were not the only decisive factors in Marie Hammer’s career as a scientist. Several times in her autobiography, Forsker i fem verdensdele [Researcher on Five Continents], published in 1981, she writes that she chose not to seek permanent employment, but wanted to pursue her own research interests wherever they might take her.

Reporting how absurdly meagre an income she had earned from her life’s work, she adds:

“Fifty years for Minerva. Despite this poor financial reward, I would not swap with anyone – I have got what I wanted and followed my inclination.”

Marie Hammer’s research was motivated by her interest in Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift and the desire to demonstrate that all the continents had originally been joined in one landmass. By studying oribatid mites on different continents, she wanted to show that their common origin made it plausible that they came from one and the same primordial continent.

She therefore had to study oribatid mites around the world, and she had a staunch belief in her goal. Her project was finally realised in the dissertation A Review of the World Distribution of Oribatid Mites (Acari: Cryptostigmata) in Relation to Continental Drift (co-written with the British zoologist John A. Wallwork), published in 1979, by which point Wegener’s theory had also been substantiated by other researchers.

Marie Hammer’s research trips and a proportion of her publication costs were paid for by grants from funding bodies, private patrons and her own money. She had, for example, an Argentine patron, Thomas Jefferson Williams, who helped her during her journeys in the Andes, 1954-55 and 1957-58.

She also received Tagea Brandts Rejselegat [Tagea Brandt Travel Award] which is awarded annually to “women who have made a profound contribution to a field of endeavour, or – in the case of scientists, artists and musicians – who in the light of their scientific and artistic qualifications can be expected to reach emphatically above the average.”

While the latter award is specifically targeted at women, and thereby a manifestation of what could be called an inverted Matilda effect, according to her autobiography Hammer also experienced the Matilda effect in a more direct form. Following her second trip to South America she was intent on pursuing her studies in New Zealand in order to follow up a possible relationship between oribatid mites on either side of Antarctica. At first no one would provide funding since she was a woman and therefore did not have to provide for a family. It was only when she applied personally to Poul Brandt Rehberg, who was on the board of directors at the Carlsberg Foundation, that she received backing. However, it is also apparent from Hammer’s memoirs that the young members of the board had not wanted to provide her with funding as she had already received a grant from the Foundation at an earlier date.

Marie Hammer had no interest in gender politics. In her autobiography she writes about the time she was elected to the American society for female scientists, Sigma Si, but also expresses her reservations vis-à-vis “organisations and movements which exclude the other sex”. In an interview for the Danish newspaper Det Fri Aktuelt in 1981, she adds with reference to feminism:

“I have never been interested in those aspects. A man and a woman can, in my opinion, be equally good if they know their business. They can complement one another, but never take the place of one another. The sexes are too different to allow for that. Therefore I also regard the discussion about gender roles to be nonsense. The two sexes can never be one and the same – nor should they be.”

“Well, be like that then” – Ebba Lund (1923-1999)
“An everlasting miracle of improvisation” is how Ebba Lund described her life as mother of three and new departmental head at the university hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. Unlike Marie Hammer, Lund did not get much help on the home front, as she explained in 1994 to an interviewer from the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen:

“My husband lived in his own world – that’s how it is for most men. Nowadays it’s beginning to change, and there are some men who are very involved in [home life]. It hasn’t been all that uncommon during my tenure that a male colleague will also look at his watch and say: ‘Right, I’ve got to go and pick up….’ Now there’s kudos in demonstrating that you’re like that. But it’s been a gradual development because it’s not implicit in upbringing and tradition.”

Ebba Lund’s experience confirms that it was (and is) not easy for women to make family and research career fit hand in glove – it was her version of the Matilda effect. This influenced her scientific work inasmuch as the prevailing work ethic apparently considered taking time off to pick up one’s children to be deviant and problematic behaviour. Perhaps this awareness was a contributory factor to Ebba Lund’s lifelong feminist sympathies.

Ebba Lund originally studied to be a chemical engineer at Danmarks Tekniske Højskole (Danish Technical College, now the Technical University of Denmark); she graduated in 1947, specialising in microbiology and the preservation of foodstuffs. Chemical engineering was not a specifically male subject; the gender balance was approximately 50-50. “The other side of the story is,” says Ebba Lund in the aforementioned interview, “that only a few of the female students finished the course and even fewer got jobs.”

She applied for many jobs without any success, but was once offered employment for the simple reason that her signature was read as Ebbe Lund, this being a male name. When the misunderstanding was spotted, the firm instantly backtracked:

“I’ll never forget it!! It was common that even if women finished the course they still wouldn’t get a job as a production engineer, which was what they were qualified to be. I said “well, be like that then” and became a researcher instead, which is what I actually really wanted to do, but I hadn’t thought I was clever enough. Since then I’ve never heard a word about my gender in relation to my profession. But the dilemma of combining work and a mother’s duties is always there, and it’s by and large insoluble,” she told Weekendavisen.

After a number of years living in Sweden, the family returned to Denmark in 1966 and Ebba Lund took up the job of principal for the department of veterinary virology and immunology at Den kgl. Veterinær- and Landbohøjskole (Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, now the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen). In 1969 the post was turned into a professorship, which Lund held until her retirement in 1993. At the time she was the first and only female professor in the history of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University.

Being departmental professor, Ebba Lund of course influenced the development of her subject; her primary research interests were: virus inactivation in waste- and sea-water, particularly the outflow to Øresund; the invasion and reproduction of the Toxoplasma parasite in cells; the parvovirus disease in mink. In addition, in 1973 she published the text book Virologi for veterinærstuderende, which was later revised in a number of versions including an English-language edition in 1989, Virology for Veterinary Students.

Ebba Lund had a busy retirement, holding a number of eminent honorary offices – in 1978, for example, she was admitted to Videnskabernes Selskab (Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters), and in 1980 she joined the board of the Carlsberg Foundation and was appointed chair of Carlsberg Laboratorium (Carlsberg Laboratory).

In 1993 she was interviewed by Politiken newspaper on “the lopsided gender balance of power”. The newspaper had made a survey of the number of female board members in large companies and had found that, at the time, only 4% of the authoritative posts were held by women – Lund was one of them and, moreover, ‘president by seniority’.

Asked about working within the dominant male culture, she noted that, being the only female professor in the history of the Veterinary University, “I’m used to it”.

The less well-known women
Inge Lehmann, Marie Hammer and Ebba Lund were all women who forged a research career in spite of the Matilda effect. Their stories provide evidence that the Matilda effect might indeed exist, but that it has different consequences for women from different backgrounds and in different circumstances.

The story of well-known women such as Lehmann, Hammer and Lund gives us an initial insight into the weight of historical practice that is still active in the research environment today when it comes to gender equality – or, as it is called in the think tank’s report, when it comes to the deployment of all available talents. If we want to get a more general picture of the factors that have made it such a challenge for women to follow a research career, we should probably look at the stories of less well-known women.

These women – the general mass, one could say – might well have earned qualifications in science or engineering and might indeed have held a few short-term research posts, but they never got any further in terms of a career in research. As far as we know, this side of the issue has yet to be investigated, so there is a large and unexplored area for the inquisitive researcher who wants to know more about the interplay between gender and research in a historical perspective – and thereby about the background to the state of affairs in the research world today.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch

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