More successful women deserve our recognition

Having Mary Somerville on Scottish banknotes indicates good progress

Image: Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville has been confirmed as the first woman other than a royal to appear on a Royal Bank of Scotland bank note.

Scotland held a vote to decide the new face of its £10 banknote. The Royal Bank of Scotland shortlisted three people: scientist Mary Somerville, physicist James Clerk Maxwell and engineer Thomas Telford.

Women appearing on banknotes has been a hot topic in recent years. The decision to put Jane Austen on the English £10 banknote is one example. This followed a campaign led by journalist Caroline Criado-Perez in which she voiced her outrage and disappointment that Churchill was replacing female prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the English £5 banknote. The campaign was met with vitriol from Twitter, including rape and death threats from those opposed to the addition of Austen.

Mary Somerville was a scientist in the 1800s who studied mathematics and astronomy and was nominated to be the first joint female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She played a monumental role in the discovery of Neptune, even though at the time female involvement in academia (particularly in the sciences and maths) was discouraged.

The competition has come at an appropriate time, with 11 February 2016 being marked as the first recognised International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Women make up only 12.8 per cent of the UK STEM workforce. Women entering the world of science and maths arguably have to work harder than their male counterparts to fight prejudice and gain recognition in these male dominated disciplines.

Women have been neglected in the world of work, especially in sectors such as mathematics, science and engineering. But more and more women have been championed for their involvement in these sectors, with organisations like WISE supporting women’s representation in science. Another example is the recent L’Oréal -UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) scheme which awards women in the UK and Ireland for their outstanding work in the sciences.

Schemes like these recognise the disadvantaged position of women and work towards awarding women who are dismantling the traditional gender narratives of these academic disciplines, narratives like Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s. In 2015 he stated, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … Three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

However, we have to be wary; championing the work of women purely because they are women, can be problematic at times. Commending a woman for the specific reason that she is a woman belittles her work and achievements.

Selecting a woman on this basis just redefines her by her gender and reaffirms her subordination in society. Are we just selecting Somerville to represent diversity rather than to commend her for her discoveries and knowledge?There is a wider picture. It is not just about having more female faces on English and Scottish currency. Having Somerville on the note recognises women’s rightful representation in sciences, influences more women to enter the world of science and challenges outdated notions of women’s work and education.

She is an example of how much women can achieve in a society that continually deters their success. Women’s work should be championed, just like anyone else’s.

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