It’s Not Just Prizes That Were Stolen…

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Caroline Sharp (She/Her) 

When the concept of intellectual property was written into the original U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8), it served to protect the intellectual property of the white person, most centrally the white man. As the concept of intellectual property has evolved alongside the development of science, both have danced with the intersectionality between race, gender, queer identity and disabilities.

Contributing to the motivations behind intellectual theft is a culture of competition, and individual worth, as measured by contribution. Colonialism and patriarchy are deeply laid into the foundations of every part of modern society, including intellectual property ownership and science. So, is it surprising that women, specifically women of colour, queerness and disabilities, have been repeatedly robbed and dismissed throughout scientific history?

There are outright thefts: discoveries plucked from the hands of the female scientist, with credit being given to male colleagues. Alice Ball was the first woman and first black person to teach Chemistry at the University of Hawaii. She created the Ball Method, the most effective leprosy treatment of the early 20th century, which was stolen, and used by her superior, Arthur Dean, who named it (surprise, surprise) the Dean Method.

It is easy to highlight these cases, to point a finger and say, ‘Look! Here is a woman who has had her intellectual property stolen from her. Poor woman, but no bother, this was 100 years ago; we can name a building after her and move on’. Perhaps more insidious, however, are the power dynamics so profoundly entrenched in academia that prevent even credited and over-achieving women from advancing in their fields.

Career advancement in STEM academia heavily depends on others around you: your colleagues, your supervisor, if you take time off to raise a family, or don’t have weekends and evenings free. Existing in the intersections between gender, race, and ability means that queer people, POC and people with disabilities are up against higher barriers to career advancement than white women. Louise Pearce, a queer pathologist who studied at Stanford, Boston University and John Hopkins, became the first female researcher at the Rockefeller Institute and was unstoppable in her accumulation of discoveries and awards. Despite this, the Rockefeller Institute would never give her full membership. Many people do not even have access to higher education or positions that allow them to make discoveries in the first place.

If an able-bodied, white, cis man has credit stolen from him, this is an injustice, but it is one that he comes out of with higher chances of advancing in his career regardless. Many people do not have the privilege of complaining about stolen credit; people simply won’t listen. Ida Noddack theorised the existence of the element technetium (which she had initially named masurium) and is also now credited with the base theories for nuclear fission. In both cases, her ideas were taken forward by men who then claimed all credit, and when she protested, she lost credibility within the community.

Rosalind Franklin graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1941 before women were allowed to be granted degrees in 1948. An 1897 vote for women to be given full degrees at Cambridge had previously resulted in male students rioting and throwing fireworks at the women’s college. That mindset and culture do not simply disappear with the rule change, and so her quiet demeanour following the theft of her X-ray photographs of DNA may be one informed by the culture she was fighting to work in. This toxic masculine culture is still embedded in STEM workplaces, causing many people to feel unwelcome in the field.

Students starting their journey in STEM will at some point encounter “imposter phenomena” – the experience of being an imposter and unworthy of a position even when one is qualified and deserving of such a position. We love to call this imposter “syndrome”, to blame the irrational beliefs on the individual rather than the environment surrounding them. This can be hard to disentangle from the individual “holding themselves back”, especially when you consider the lack of representation within the professor population of universities. Although women comprise 50% of STEM undergraduate students, they only comprise 41% of doctoral candidates. This number drops to 36% of post-doctoral faculty and again to 29% in the STEM workforce. Again, minorities have even lower representation at 4.8% of the workforce.

The problems that women, people of colour, queer and disabled people have faced throughout history in STEM have not disappeared. Stolen prizes and missed opportunities are not just something of the past and should not be treated as a solved issue.  


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