Nettie Stevens, and the Trouble With Women
March is Women’s History Month in the US, UK, and Austrailia, and it’s no secret that, historically, women have had a tough time getting their due credit in science, so we thought we would take a look at a female scientist who deserved far more credit than she got in her lifetime: Nettie Stevens.
Nettie Stevens was a geneticist in the early 1900s.
The path to science wasn’t easy for Nettie, but she worked as a teacher on an off to save money to get herself through school, and ended up with a spot as a research assistant at a place called Bryn Mawr College at the age of 39.
This is Bryn Mawr College. So far, no blatant sexism!
Nettie made one of the biggest discoveries in the history of genetics in 1905.
Nettie noticed that male mealworms produced sperm with either X or Y chromosomes, but that female mealworms only produced eggs with X chromosomes.
She realized that females pass on an X chromosome to their offspring, but the males pass on either an X or a Y. She concluded that biological sex was based on chromosomes, and determined by whether the male passes on an X or Y chromosome.
She presumably did all this so she could stop looking at mealworms all day long
Coincidentally, it was also males who determined whether Nettie’s theory would be seriously considered. At the time, biological sex was thought to be determined by environmental factors, and people paid little attention to some wacky woman who thought she belonged in science.
Ah. There it is
A little later the same year, the former chair of Nettie’s department, Edmund Beecher Wilson, independently discovered the X-Y basis for sex determinism. He published his findings, but he did at least give an acknowledgment to Nettie, who worked in the same department.
Later on, a more prominent geneticist named Thomas Hunt Morgan (who became chair of Nettie’s department after EBW) also came to the same conclusion about the chromosomal basis of sex determination. He went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1933. Nettie, on the other hand, died in 1912 at the age of the age of 50. Thomas Hunt Morgan wrote her obituary for the journal Science, in which he called her more of a lab tech than a scientist.
“The sperm, though, is far better”
Only recently has Nettie’s contribution to sex determination started to become more widely recognized, well after her death. Nettie’s not the only woman in science who never got her due. Rosalind Franklin co-discovered the DNA double-helix before Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, who all got Nobel prizes instead of her. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, but her supervisors Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle won the Nobel prize for that. Esther Lederberg invented replica plating, her husband got the Nobel for that one. The list goes on and on. In fact, overlooking women’s contributions to science is so common that there’s a scientific term for it – the Matilda Effect.
Behold, the face of gender suppression
How can this happen?
We have all heard of sexism before, and many have seen it firsthand, but it seems impossible that a scientist could go completely uncredited for a ground-breaking discovery because she’s a woman. In what world can this actually happen?
On that note, let’s divert our attention to watch a little video I found called “The Trouble With Women”.
The Trouble With Women
- The film is brought to us by the Aluminum Company of America, one of a series on “Plant Supervisors’ Problems”. The problem of focus here: Women, and how terrible they are at their jobs.
- The video starts with a woman, Betty, working on some sort of box device. The site foreman, Mr. Bradshaw, walks over and points out that, of the 6 dials on the box, she’s turning the wrong ones.
- Bradshaw is interrupted by another woman who tells him that she’s his new bearings inspector. Mr. Bradshaw’s face visibly darkens as he tells Betty, who is still turning the wrong dials, that he will show her how to do her job, again, later.
- Our next shot is of Mr. Bradshaw storming into the office of the Personnel Manager, who appears to be Walt Disney.
The Aluminum Company of America: The Most Magical Place on Earth
- 1:38 – “Okay now Walt, you’ve had your little joke.” Identity confirmed.
- Bradshaw is upset about having a woman for a bearings inspector, and tells Walt to “give her to somebody else, I asked for a man”. At this point, it seems like Mr. Bradshaw is about to get fired, and maybe a lawsuit.
- 1:50 – We find out Mr. Bradshaw’s first name is Brad. Brad Bradshaw.
- Walt quite reasonably points out that the woman is the most qualified person, and asks what’s wrong with her. Mr. Bradshaw says “She’s a woman, isn’t she!?!?” Walt then responds with the only possibly thing a person could say at that point.
“Sweet Jesus Mr. Bradshaw, that’s…that’s just appallingly sexist. Obviously, you’re fired”
- And then the video ends, the lesson being “don’t hire a sexist”.
- Oh wait, no, sorry. That’s just what you anyone would expect to happen. Instead, Walt decides to hear this madness out, and asks what’s so bad about working with women. Brad says “it’s a long story” in a way that a veteran with PTSD talks about the horrors he saw at war. Clearly he has seen the trouble with women before.
- Brad starts off on a story about how terrible female employees are. He hooks the meanest eyebrow this side of The Rock and spits out the name “Myrtle Malloy” with such venom that you expect a crash of thunder in the background.
“MYRTLE MALLOY!!! May slow death take her whole family!”
- Brad then tells his Ahab and the Whale story about the time he tried to get Myrtle to move to a different table, and she had the gall to ask him why! Then she asked if she might get moved again, to which Bradshaw says “There is Always That Possibility” with a tone that says “Do not F with me, lady, I’m a bad man.”
“There’s also always the possibility that Brad Bradshaw lays the SmackDown on you right now!”
- To be fair, Myrtle is kind of whiny, but it’s really not the violation of Geneva Conventions that Bradshaw seems to think it is. But before Walt can point this out, Brad’s off on another tale of woe.
- This time, we see a woman who is not important enough to be given a name. She tells Brad that she’s getting married soon, and is therefore leaving work, which I guess was relatively custom for women at the time. It’s also possible that women used any excuse at all to stop working for Mr. Bradshaw.
“I have to quit. My cousin just got a dog.”
- “Marriage!” Brad indignantly exclaims, as though something just reminded him of Myrtle Malloy, “I thought you just got engaged!”
- The woman quite reasonably points out that she told him about that 6 months ago, and he proceeds to berate her about what a mess she’s leaving them in, and how long it takes to break in a new girl. He then screams “why didn’t you say something!?”, and so the woman points out the first part of this paragraph again.
“Remember when you just confirmed that we talked about this 6 months ago?”
- We cut back to Walt and Brad, where Brad points out “the biggest problem of all” – absenteeism among women employees. Of all the stereotypes about women, that one is the most likely to not actually exist.
- This story has no flashback scene, although it would be incredible if it just cut to a 30 second shot of Brad standing in an empty room, looking bewildered.
- Brad tells of how he trained a woman for an hour and a half on the same machine Betty was working on, which is pretty stunning. He then says the lady didn’t come back (see: “anything to escape Bradshaw”, above). He takes another pot-shot at Betty, saying she’s so dumb that he’ll probably have to train yet another person on the machine later.
Meanwhile, Betty wonders why her Etch-A-Sketch doesn’t work
- Walt points out that marriage, absenteeism, personality problems etc. is just part of life, at which point Brad yells out “part of a WOMAN’S life, maybe!”
“Marriage is no problem of mine, no siree!”
- We then come to the strangest part of the whole video. All signs point to Walt telling Brad off about his disgusting sexism. Just when we get to the punchline, though, he comes out with “It seems to me that, whether the gal adds up to trouble or not is pretty much up to you.”
- Brad hooks a few more eyebrows then walks off to rejoin Dolly, who smiles politely, unaware that her direct superior just tried to have her fired because she has a vagina. The words “What is Brad’s trouble?” appear, as Brad stares off into the middle distance, wondering just how the hell he is going to manage dealing with yet another woman.
- End of video. Seriously, that’s how the video ends.
Now, I’ve watched this video like 10 times, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what the moral of the story is supposed to be. It seems like it’s going to be an anti-sexism message, but then Walt pretty much just says “yep, woman can be the worst, you have to learn to deal with them right”.
Can that be the message? I honestly can’t see it any other way. Joking aside, I’m guessing this video was supposed to shown in some terrible employee training seminar, and maybe the class was supposed to discuss what is Brad’s trouble. But the good guy of the video, Walt Disney, implies that all of Brad’s issues come up because he can’t deal with women properly. Like women are circus lions, and Brad’s supposed to be the lion tamer. I really think that’s what the idea here was.
Also, this video isn’t that old. It’s from 1959. To give some context, some of the people in this video might still be alive.
Though probably not Walt
This is what the attitude towards women in the workplace was in 1959, well after Nettie Stevens was working in a genetics department in 1905. Now, imagine what poor Nettie Stevens, and the rest of the women who suffered from the Matilda Effect, went through just to make it into academia at all. It must have been unbelievably sexist, and it’s no wonder no one gave them any credit for their work. The men were just worried about women becoming absentees.
A staff meeting with women, according to Brad Bradshaw
Unfortunately, some of this sexism still persists even today.
Despite more the fact that more than half of all undergraduate degrees are awarded to women, women make up less than 25% of all science professors, a figure that is considerably lower among the physical sciences. Women get paid less in some of these professions, too.
“We just won’t get paid the same”
Luckily, there are systems in place to fix this. In Canada, there’s the NSERC Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering program and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, as well as the larger-scale Association for Women in Science. These programs work to increase the number of women in STEM fields, and to ensure they are treated and paid equitably to their male peers. There seems to be some progress, too. For example, just last year McMaster University provided a raise for female professors to put them on par with male faculty.
But there’s still a long way to go. So, the next time you hear a story about sexism in science, know that’s its real, and it’s a problem, and for the sake of science and humanity, do your best to eradicate it where you see it. It’s for everyone’s good.
Especially for women working for Brad Bradshaw.