Scottish women of science

Photo of young woman at electrical display
Young woman at a 1950s
science fair.

On these pages we will be highlighting a few of the Scottish women who made outstanding achievements in scientific fields from the 18th century onwards.

Forgotten pioneers

Women scientists have made significant contributions in many scientific fields such as astronomy, chemistry and biology.

But how many of them can you name? Many Scottish women were pioneers in their own fields of research, yet are now largely unknown. Here, we highlight some of their achievements, as well as some of the challenges which they had to face.

In this video, Science Collections Curator, Catherine Booth uncovers the stories and achievements of two Scottish women scientists — the astronomer Williamina Fleming (1857-1911), and the protozoologist Muriel Robertson (1883-1973).

You can also read a transcript of this video.

Overcoming challenges

Women were only allowed to graduate from Scottish universities after the passing of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889. After this time, Scottish universities began to make arrangements for women to study and to graduate on the same terms as men. The first intake of female undergraduates took place in 1892. However, women could not study and graduate from a medical degree until 1916.

It was also difficult for women to gain senior positions in academia, research, and industry. The Royal Society did not admit women until 1945, while the Royal Society of Edinburgh elected its first female Fellows in 1949.

Women in science today

Although the number of women science graduates and postgraduates has increased in recent years, there is still a need to encourage more women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A recent report published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh — 'Tapping all our talents': Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (2012) — highlights that only a minority of women science graduates go on to work in the STEM sector. Also, women are still under-represented in senior positions in universities, research institutes, government, business, and industry.

Discussion points

  • Look at the 'Tapping all our talents' report produced by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. What possible reasons are given for the low numbers of women pursuing a career in STEM areas in Scotland today? What does the report suggest might be done to encourage more women scientists to take up senior positions in the sector?
  • A recent report produced by WISE — Women into Science, Engineering, and Construction — shows that some undergraduate degree subjects are dominated by either men or women. For example, significantly more men study engineering and computer science, and more women study medicine and veterinary science. Why do you think this might be? Do you think that men and women might have different motivations for studying science subjects?
  • Do you think that some subjects or careers are more suited to particular genders?
  • Do you think that there is any difference between the way that men and women scientists are represented in the media? You may want to look at this report produced by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science (PDF: 4.32 MB; 4 pages).


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