The Role of Woman in the Development of Science and Technology

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History textbooks can tell people very few about women scientists. Even if their names are known, often these are names of wives, daughters, and sometimes sisters rather than independent individuals despite the fact that women scientists have made an outstanding contribution to the development of scientific knowledge. Although women have been engaged in science for a long time as well as men, most people still consider the history of science as the history of men such as Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein who were able to dramatically change human view of the world. However, the history of science does not belong to men only.

Women in the Ancient Science

The origin of knowledge, technology, and all what is called science has its roots in antiquity. There were many women who stood out in science even in the ancient times. One of them was Hypatia of Alexandria (370 - 415 AD), a mathematician, astronomer, and neoplatonist philosopher (Watts 18). She was engaged in revising and improving the Euclidean geometry together with her father Theon, mathematician and astronomer. They were the first who invented a device for distillation of water and measurement of its level. Hypatia became the victim of religious bigotry of Christians and was torn to pieces by the crowd.

The first plant scientists were women. They collected herbs and linked maturation of plants with astronomical phenomena (change of phases of the moon, appearance of stars). Their activity served for the development of cosmology. An especially known cosmologist is Theano of Crotona (Pythagoras' wife), who taught mathematics in Samos and Croton. She is supposed to be the author of an important concept in mathematics entitled the treatise on the Golden Mean.

Socrates and Plato were the only ones who advocated for women's education among the Athenian philosophers. Representatives of "the fairer sex" (mostly foreigners) were trained in the famous Academy of Plato founded in 387 BC. Since the law did not allow women to attend public meetings, they had to come to lectures in men's clothing. One of these women was Axiothea of Phlius (Hessenbruch 14). Her special interest lied in physics and natural philosophy. After the death of Plato, Axiothea lectured in his Academy.



Women in the Science of Medieval Period

During the Middle Ages, science and education were almost completely dominated by men who not only virtually monopolized the education system, but also restricted access to it for women. However, women in Europe had the opportunity to practice science, namely medicine, even in this dark period of history. Thus, the first medical school for women was established in the 11th century in Salerno, southern Italy. Teachers and students of this school were women who were also called "ladies of Salerno" (Hessenbruch 52). This school earned honorable reputation and was often seen as the first university in Europe in the middle of the 11th century.

Female monasteries were a kind of cultural centers in the Middle Ages. Female monasteries performed a double function: educational institutions and shelters for daughters of noble families, as well as heiresses of great fortunes who often became abbesses of these monasteries. The monastery was an attractive alternative to marriage for many of them. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was also an abbess and a woman of exceptional ability (Watts 34). She also had a great power and influence on priests, emperors, and kings. In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen wrote her works on natural sciences and medicine. Since 1155, she traveled all over the country, giving lectures on medicine and theology. She penned the encyclopedia of natural history Physika, which describes 230 species of plants and 60 species of trees, species of fish, birds, rocks, metals, and a treatise Causae et curae, which is devoted to the theory of medicine and medications.

Women in the Science of Early Modern Period

At the end of the Middle Ages, the influence of monasteries and the clergy sharply decreased and the power transferred to cities. Prestige of education grew simultaneously with limitation of access to it for women. Scientists of the early Renaissance rejected all achievements of the Middle Ages so that female scientists of the Middle Ages were forgotten. However, the continuity of women scientists was maintained. During this period, the most famous female scientists were ladies belonging to aristocratic circles in which women should have had not only beauty, but also a great mind (Hessenbruch 52). Ignoring scientific achievements among women was considered as bad taste. Lady Anne Conway and Lady Mary Montagu are considered to be the most prominent women of the English society of that time.

Young Countess Anne Conway spent her spare time studying mathematics and astronomy on her own. Anne Conway's book The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was published for the first time after her death in 1679, according to her manuscripts in the Netherlands dated 1690, by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (a legendary alchemist and philosopher). This book had a strong influence on the development of the natural philosophy of the 18th century in general.

Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762) acquired her scientific knowledge on her own due to an excellent library of her father, Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. Lady Mary Montagu's merit lies in the fact that she introduced the practice of vaccination against smallpox in Britain and this practice then spread to other countries in Western Europe (Watts 60).

While formal education was not available to women, they received their knowledge in the process of self-education or from their fathers, brothers, husbands, often cooperating with them in their researches. Such cooperation was the only form how women could satisfy their interest and curiosity in science. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 - 1852) is often considered as the world's first computer programmer (Gornick 63). She worked in the 30s of the 19th century with Charles Babbage on the development of the first universal programmable computer. Lady Lovelace was working on its program part. She managed to do a little in her short life, but the little that she produced forever inscribed her in the history of computing mathematics and computer science. Series of general provisions made by Ada Lovelace in 1843 have retained their fundamental importance for modern programming and her definition of "cycle" coincides almost word for word with modern textbooks in programming.

Science has become an independent subject of study at universities with the growth of specialization and professionalization of science. Dutch universities were the first who officially opened doors of universities to women on an equal footing with men; it happened only in the 60s of the 19th century. Universities of Switzerland and England in the 70s of the same century followed their example, spreading this practice all over Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

Women and the Academy of Sciences

Women had no free access to the Academy of Sciences. One of the few exceptions is Sofia Kovalevskaya. She was a student of the prominent mathematician Weierstrass. In 1883, due to the lack of any scientific or teaching prospects in her homeland, she agreed to accept the post of assistant professor at Stockholm University. After the first special course (no salary was provided for it), she was elected a professor of the Graduate School for five years with a stable salary. Kovalevskaya was the first female professor not only at Stockholm University, but in the whole Europe (Gornick 80). She worked in the field of mathematical analysis, mechanics, and astronomy. In 1889, she became the first woman - corresponding member of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

The name of Maria Sklodowska-Curie, French chemist and physicist, one of the founders of the science of radioactivity, is also widely known. She discovered radioactivity, as well as radium and polonium together with her husband Pierre Curie and she was the one who coined the term "radioactivity". She developed methods of radioactive measurements and applied radioactivity for medical purposes. The off-system unit of activity of radioactive isotopes is named after her (Gornick 85). Contributions of this woman to science were marked by two Nobel Prizes, making her the first double winner of the Nobel Prize.

All these biographical data provide irrefutable evidence that female scientists have existed in every culture throughout the history of the humanity, but they could achieve some success only in an environment where there was a positive attitude towards scientific pursuits.

Women in Modern Science

The last century went down in history as the century of scientific and educational activity. Women won equal rights to education with men. Science became a mass profession for the first time in the human history. American economic downturn in the beginning of the 80s would be a great example. Total employment in manufacturing industries in the beginning of the 80s decreased on average by 3.1% annually and the number of scientific and technical personnel grew annually by an average of 3%. Such situation was also observed during the recession of 1991-1992. The influence of scientific and technical factors is stable: it changes employment patterns, thus contributing to involvement of a greater number of creative professionals in the ranks of workers.

Currently, it is no longer about individual prominent figures in science, but about scientific workers as representatives of the media profession.

Entrance of women to scientific activity has not been an uninterrupted process. A noticeable increase in their number was observed at the end of the 19th century, which lasted until about the 30s of the last century. It was the time of the first mass movement for women's rights. There was observed an opposite tendency over the following years in Europe, the USA, and Canada. For example, in the United States, the share of female Ph.Ds and faculty members decreased significantly: the share of women among university students in 1920 was 47%, but then the amount fell and was restored only by 1976. In the United States, the proportion of women increased from 9 to 16% of the total number of engineers and scientists engaged in research and development in the period from 1978 to 1988. Most researches explain this growth with the growth of the level of education and popularity of various women's movements. The vast majority of women were employed in research work (86%) and only 14% were engaged in engineering activities (Rosser 51).

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The history of women's work shows that low-wage sectors of activities are predominantly feminized. Unfortunately, in recent years, it is possible to speak about the fact that science becomes more and more feminized when the share of women has begun to increase because of a decreased number of men seeking such jobs. The apparent decline in the social status and significance of the science area, which was somehow manifested in the 80s in all developed countries, has led to an outflow of male workers into more prestigious public areas, which corresponds to known focusing of the stronger sex on professional achievements, prestigious activities, and high income.

The Current State of the Subject

In the modern era of transition from an industrial to an information society, one of the typical features of the social division of labor is to strengthen the role of science and scientists in the functioning and development of the society. Feminization of the current scientific world may be deemed its general direction. Problems of women working in science and their effectiveness are common in all industrialized countries with no exception.

Entry of women into science is considered as active involvement of them into public production in the field of highly qualified workforce. This phenomenon is assessed as positive in the context of expansion of public production, scientific progress, and, therefore, availability of sufficient demand in the labor market, including scientific workers. However, as international experience shows, women are disproportionately affected by economic uncertainty and rising unemployment. This fully applies to women scientists who often may become jobless under unfavorable conditions or, in the best case, may hold temporary posts or be underemployed having the same educational level, experience, and seniority as men.

Another current tendency is that women scientists have become regarded as an extra source of scientific and technological potential. This is particularly evident in the United States where participation of women in scientific activities is seen as one of the real ways to preserve scientific leadership (Jacobsen 29).

However, basic forms of discrimination against women in science are still preserved. One of them forces a woman to perform exhausting technical jobs that are needed for every scientific activity without giving her a chance to be recognized or at least satisfied. The second form forces women with talents and gifts in scientific area to remain in the position of assistants who are always unseen and underpaid. Therefore, the gap in the scientific performance of men and women persists in favor of the stronger sex, as well as being manifested in the difference between men's and women's salaries (Hill, Corbett, and St. Rose 41).

The Affect of the Technological Change on the Role of Woman

Scientific and technological progress contributes to the liberation of women from domestic work and their further involvement in productive and social activities. Society is interested in the fact that women are engaged not only in housework and child-rearing, but also in professional activities because the main purpose of the society is to ensure full development of all its members and help them achieve full social equality.

During technological changes, women's work has begun to be applied in all areas of social production, except those that are harmful to a female body. Today, high labor activity of women is caused by both objective and subjective factors. The objective factor applies primarily to the constant growth of needs of the economy in the labor force, including women's labor force. This is due to the expansion of production and creation of new jobs due to the technological change (Sheffield 37). Technological change has also contributed to the emergence of professional duties (in the division of labor process) that a woman can do better than a man and, finally, to the reduction in the proportion of heavy physical labor due to mechanization and automation of production.

Broad involvement of women in social production is one of the characteristic features of economic development around the world.

Thus, men are not the only ones who have ensured the development of science, but women have also contributed to a wide variety of industries. However, women scientists have not been so well-known primarily because of the dominant patriarchal ideology throughout the history. A radical socio-cultural change in the modern world is needed in order to grant women a worthy place in science.


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As for the current stage of solving women's issues, it is necessary to form a new attitude to women's life problems and seek new approaches to their solution, taking into account the whole range of social changes and the increasing complexity of the role and responsibilities of women in social and cultural development of the society. Today, there is an urgent need to overcome conservatism and one-sidedness in the interpretation of women's issues. In this regard, it seems appropriate to analyze the practical experience gained throughout the history of women's involvement into predominantly male activities, including science and technology, in order to encourage women to participate in all spheres of the national economy.

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