Marie Curie Was Born 150 Years Ago and Women Are Still Fighting to Be Scientists

Marie Curie. Keystone/Getty Images

Today, November 7, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Sklodowska, later known as Marie Curie. It's hard to quibble with the statement that she changed the world: She was awarded two separate Nobel Prizes, in two separate disciplines, she discovered two elements and the entire concept of radioactivity, and she helped bring the life-saving medical power of X-rays to the battlefields of World War I.

But during her career, she was always treated differently than her colleagues, not on account of her intelligence but on account of her gender. Even her friends questioned her when she kept doing science after the birth of her first daughter. Only her husband and lab partner's lobbying on her behalf ensured she wasn't cut out of the first Nobel Prize that honored their work, and only her taking his professorship after his death earned her the title.

Even 150 years after her birth, Curie is rightfully famous for her achievements. She is likely the most famous female scientist in history.

But despite the best efforts of Curie herself and thousands upon thousands of women who have tried to follow in her footsteps, science still treats men and women differently. The Nobel Prizes in science this year went to nine men, and last year to seven men—the last woman to be recognized was Youyou Tu in 2015, for her work on drugs to fight malaria. Since their institution, the three science Nobels have recognized just 17 women.

Many modern women in science would recognize Marie Curie's situation at this meeting more than a century ago. Couprie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And that discrepancy goes much deeper than these most prestigious prizes, pervading the entire institution of science. By the age of six, girls have already been trained to believe they can't be brilliant. Male college students think their female compatriots in biology courses know less. Women in the U.S. still earn fewer science and engineering doctoral degrees than men.

Once they've made it in the field, women still aren't treated equally. Only one in five full science professors is female. Male-dominated panels are so common at academic conferences and public outreach events that the internet has nicknamed them "manels" and begun shaming them on social media. Papers written by female scientists are cited less frequently and professional recommendation letters are full of gender-biased language.

Not all of the ways women are pushed out of the sciences are casually insidious, either. Female medical residents and researchers in the field regularly face sexual harassment and assault.

And when women speak up about how they're treated, men tend to reject the evidence.

It's why on the 150th anniversary of Marie Curie's birth, we still have to talk about how no one knows about her modern equivalent.