Women have made valuable contributions to science throughout the ages, so why do we rarely hear about female astronomers and archaeologists? Sarah Morse of the Learned Society of Wales attended a fascinating conversation between Amanda Foreman, historian and presenter of BBC’s The Ascent of Woman, who was joined by science historian Patricia Fara, archaeologist Becky Wragg Sykes and neuroscientist Daniel Glaser to discuss some of the often neglected discoveries made by women and why they have been forgotten.

The audience was reminded that Science is part of society, and therefore part of our culture. Although the statement seemed obvious, it is an understanding of science that is often overlooked.

The media often portrays science as something detached from and outside everyday experience, confirming the stereotype of the lone genius. But this image of science hides the teams of people who work to support and enable the ‘scientific superheroes’. We’re encouraged to celebrate the great discoveries, rather than the processes and hard graft that lead to up to them. In particular the numerous often female ‘invisible assistants’ are overlooked.

Patricia Fara reminded us that in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the study of astronomy was primarily conducted from home. Many women took part in the study of the stars – recording observations, maintaining the instruments, keeping accurate records, calculations. Indeed, many women such as Henrietta Leavitt and Caroline Herschel worked as the ‘computers’ of the age. Leavitt’s work, and her discovery, first allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the earth and galaxies; without Leavitt’s Law, Edwin Hubble’s discoveries would not have been possible. Although Caroline Herschel’s work produced some of the first star maps and catalogues for her brother William, and saw her become the first woman to be published in the Transactions of the Royal Society, and the first woman to be paid for her contribution for science we’re more likely to be aware of her brother, than her.

Perhaps the best-known and overlooked female astronomer is Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose discovery of pulsars, or ‘tiny bits of scruff’ as she first observed them, eventually won her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish, a Nobel Prize in Physics. Bell Burnell however was excluded, despite her name being second on the paper which announced the discovery. Bell Burnell once observed that to succeed in science, women had to be superheroes – but Fara argued that today, rather than be superheroes, scientists (and society) need greater awareness of the prejudices we all have.

Daniel Glaser picked up on this point, and pointed out that science and society are interdependent and share similar characteristics – consequently, women are no more under-represented in science than in many other areas of public life. However, Glaser also suggested that science offers the tools to address this problem. Although scientists are often less self-reflexive than humanities scholars (the self is written out of scientific discourse), research in psychology has been key in developing greater awareness of implicit bias, and this work has actively challenged the status quo, and when the audience was asked if they had participated in implicit bias training, over a third had. In exposing one’s biases, people can work to address them, and be more conscious of how they may influence their decisions.

Becky Wragg Sykes introduced the ‘Trowelblazers’ project, which promotes the stories of women who work – and worked – in archaeology and palaeontology. She explained that women within the field had brought new approaches and practices to the trowel sciences, which revolutionised the excavation process. However, as this work had been often done while assisting a ‘great male’ figure, the contribution of women was overlooked, and Trowelblazers was an opportunity to recover and promote the stories and discoveries of women.

The subsequent panel discussion agreed that critical to making science more egalitarian was to make it more open – open to interdisciplinarity, and open to it being more representative of society. Science also needs to make itself more open to younger generations – it needs to demonstrate opportunities to children; they can see it, and BE it.  And the British Science Festival, and fringe festival, offered the perfect opportunity to do just that.


The Learned Society of Wales (LSW) is an independent, all-Wales, self-governing, pan-discipline educational charity that was established back in 2010. As Wales’s first National Academy of science and letters, the Learned Society of Wales, like similar societies in Ireland and Scotland, brings together the most successful and talented Fellows connected with Wales, for the shared purpose and common good of advancing and promoting excellence in all scholarly discipline across Wales. As part of the LSW commitment to promoting women in science, the Society this year launched the Frances Hoggan medal celebrating outstanding STEMM research by women.