Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2018: Equal to the Task

The trouble with girls: obstacles to women’s success in medicine and research—an essay by Laurie Garrett

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 13 December 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5232
  1. Laurie Garrett, journalist and author
  1. New York, USA
  1. laurie{at}

Female medical practitioners and researchers face specific disadvantages in four key areas, writes Laurie Garrett. Childbirth is a common factor, and institutions and funders urgently need to recognize and respond to this

I asked Google who discovered climate change, and its top answer was John Tyndall, who published evidence in 1859 on carbon dioxide heating the Earth’s surface.

But Google was incorrect. In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Eunice Foote organized the first women’s rights conference, in Seneca Falls, New York. Afterwards, Foote, a scientist, measured the temperature of various gases when subjected to solar radiation. Carbon dioxide became the hottest, and Foote sent her findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.1

It accepted her paper, but Foote, as a woman, was not allowed to address the meeting, so her paper was read by a man. And the association refused to publish a woman’s work in the proceedings, so it was released separately. Foote’s work clearly preceded Tyndall’s, but her contribution to climate science is buried in obscurity.

In the 1900s the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s male boss received the Nobel Prize for proving the existence of pulsars. Rosalind Franklin died before she could contest the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine—awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and her boss, Maurice Wilkins. Franklin’s x ray crystallography was used, without her consent, by Watson and Crick to decipher DNA’s double helix. And, in 2018, Donna Strickland became only the third female honored with a physics Nobel Prize, raising the total of all female science Nobelists ever to 3%. Only then did Canada’s University of Waterloo make her a full professor.

These stories illustrate the barriers experienced by women at the top of scientific and medical achievement. But most women pursuing research in these disciplines encounter …

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