And finally … to celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022 on Friday

A history of women in plant science - John Innes Centre

(image: John Innes Centre)
(image: John Innes Centre)

To celebrate International Women and Girls in Science day (11 February), archivist Sarah Wilmot explores the history of women in science, both at the John Innes Centre and before its formation. We take a journey through time to understand the barriers and celebrate the successes of those who were able to overcome those challenges to become scientists and technicians.

First let’s go back to the time before the John Innes Centre was founded. Women wanting to do scientific work faced many barriers. For instance, they couldn’t attend UK universities until the late 19th century.

Even when women were allowed to go to university their presence was strictly controlled with segregation to female only colleges, or segregated labs. Attempts to widen their access to higher education were often met with hostility. On occasion, as happened in Cambridge in 1897, the issue sparked mass protest and riots.

By this date all British universities, except Oxford and Cambridge, accepted women to degrees. At Cambridge, where the John Innes’s first director, William Bateson had first taught genetics, women could attend lectures, but many science professors would not accept women in their labs.

From 1921 they could take exams and gain a ‘titular degree’, which gave them the formal rights to attend university lectures and be admitted to university laboratories, but there was no actual graduation after all the hard work they had put in.

In fact, women were unable to gain a full degree until as late as 1948 at Cambridge. Oxford granted women full degrees from 1919.

The ‘titular degree’ denied women full university rights, including access to the junior posts and research fellowships that enabled men to get a foot on the scientific career ladder. Voluntary or grant-aided work with a male mentor, or a position in the few women’s colleges, or ladies’ labs, was often the only route for a woman to pursue scientific research.

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Posted On: 10/02/2022

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