What Is Matilda Effect? Invisibility Of Women In Science And Beyond

The Matilda Effect, coined by historian Margaret Rossiter, was named after the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage. It spotlights cases where women's scientific achievements have been sidelined or dismissed.

Ishika Thanvi
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Image: The Conversation

Throughout history, the spotlight on scientific breakthroughs has predominantly shone on renowned men. Meanwhile, the significant contributions made by women often languished in obscurity, a phenomenon that continues to resonate in the scientific arena today.


Lise Meitner's Story: Where It All Started

In 1945, Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pivotal role in discovering nuclear fission. His long-time collaborator, physicist Lise Meitner, however, received no acknowledgement, despite her indispensable contributions. This stark omission is emblematic of a systemic bias that has plagued women scientists for centuries.

What Is The Matilda Effect?

The Matilda Effect, coined by historian Margaret Rossiter in 1993, draws attention to this phenomenon of overlooked female scientists. Named after the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage, it spotlights the historical and contemporary cases where women's scientific achievements have been sidelined or dismissed as explained by Lisa Lamm in The Lost Women of Science.

Katie Hafner, a journalist and producer of the podcast series "Lost Women of Science," sheds light on the pervasive nature of this issue. It's not merely about missed Nobel Prizes; it's about being relegated to footnotes, asterisks, or entirely erased from scientific narratives. The database of "Lost Women of Science" stands as a much-needed testament to this widespread erasure.

Lise Meitner's narrative extends beyond the Nobel Prize snub. As a Jewish scientist, she faced heightened challenges, labouring under the shadow of male colleagues. Marissa Moss's "The Woman Who Split the Atom" poignantly captures Meitner's battle for recognition and her anguish at the misuse of her discoveries by her male counterparts.


Historical Context: Barriers To Recognition

Historically, societal norms and gender roles confined women to subordinate positions, impeding their visibility and recognition in scientific circles. Many worked alongside their husbands, their contributions eclipsed by patriarchal structures that favoured male acknowledgement.

The 'Great Man Theory'

The prevailing notion of the "Great Man Theory" perpetuated the idea that scientific milestones were achieved solely by individual male luminaries. However, as Hafner highlights, science is inherently collaborative, with contributions from numerous, often overlooked, women scientists.

The case of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose discovery of pulsars was overshadowed by her male supervisor's Nobel Prize win, and Esther Lederberg, whose groundbreaking genetic research was sidelined in favour of her husband's recognition, exemplify the Matilda Effect in action.

Despite strides towards gender equality, the Matilda Effect persists, evidenced by the Gender Citation Gap. Male researchers continue to receive disproportionate recognition in academic papers, perpetuating the invisibility of women's contributions.


Unconscious biases, rooted in societal perceptions of gender roles, perpetuate this inequity. The role congruity theory posits that entrenched stereotypes of the "male scientist" perpetuate the marginalization of women's work, even among both male and female researchers.

Toward Equity: Mitigating The Matilda Effect

To rectify these disparities, concerted efforts are imperative. Educational initiatives aimed at fostering awareness of gender biases and inclusivity are pivotal. Steinbrink and his colleagues advocate for reforming citation practices and fostering inclusivity from the grassroots level.

Hafner stresses the importance of acknowledging past oversights to inspire future generations of female scientists. Normalizing the historical contributions of women in science, as envisaged by Margaret Rossiter, is paramount to amplifying the visibility of women's achievements.

The Matilda Effect serves as a sobering reminder of the persistent biases that have hindered the recognition of women in science. By confronting these biases head-on and amplifying the voices of overlooked female scientists, we pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive scientific landscape. Only by rewriting the narrative of scientific history can we truly honour the contributions of all scientists, regardless of gender.

Invisibility of Women in Science Lost Women of Science female scientists