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The Harem Effect On Female Scientists In The Victorian Era

The “Harem Effect” on female scientists in the Victorian Era opened some doors and closed many others. In short, the “Harem Effect” refers to the practice of male scientists in power who hired women to staff their research teams.

On the plus side, the “Harem Effect” gave female scientists rare opportunities to work in their chosen fields. It also made many scientific projects possible – as in economically feasible. In a time before computers, these women served as human computers.

On the minus side, female scientists were often denied credit for their discoveries and held back by “busy work” a.k.a. “women’s work.” Although this “women’s work” frequently involved precise observations, complex mathematical calculations and high volumes of data analysis, the women in the “harem” were paid a fraction of what their male counterparts were paid, even while working longer hours than men. And never mind that the “women’s work” of these female scientists in the Victorian Era resulted in extraordinary advances in a number of fields.

“Pickering’s Harem” And The Harvard College Observatory

History offers many examples of these so-called harems. One of the most famous was “Pickering’s Harem” from our previous post, Williamina Fleming: Maid To Victorian Era Astronomer. Edward Pickering was a professor of astronomy at Harvard and had been the director of the Harvard College Observatory since 1877. Pickering was notoriously disappointed by the poor quality of work being produced by his male employees at the Observatory. It was said that he often claimed his “Scottish maid” could do a better job. As it turned out—she could and she did.

Yale Follows Pickering’s Lead

In 1901, William Elkin, the directory of the Yale Observatory, followed Pickering’s lead and created a harem of his own. According to the STEM anthology, A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention Elkin said:

“I am thoroughly in favour of employing women as measurers and computers. Not only are women available at smaller salaries than are men, but for routine work they have important advantages. Men are more likely to grow impatient after the novelty of the work has worn off and would be harder to retain for that reason.”

First International Women’s Day: 1908

As early as March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten hour day, and equal rights for women. The police stopped their demonstration.

It was a time of great expansion and unrest in the industrialized world. Massive migrations and a population boom were changing everything. The first International Women’s Day (IWD) was held in 1908 when 15,000 women primarily from the needle trade marched through New York City.  They were demanding shorter hours, better pay, an end to child labor and sweatshops and voting rights.

News Flash 2016: Longer Hours, Lower Pay For Women

The International Labor Organization (ILO) published its recent report for International Women’s Day (IWD). Surprisingly, it states that a large gender gap remains across a broad spectrum of the global labor market. Despite some modest gains in some regions of the world, millions of women are losing ground in their quest for equality in the work world.

In developed economies, women work 8 hours and 9 minutes compared to 7 hours and 36 minutes worked by their male counterparts.

In our post Bisland Races Nellie Bly To Bridge The Gender Pay Gap, we discuss the World Economic Forum‘s study that determined it will take another 118 years – or until 2133 – until the global pay gap between men and women is finally closed.

What’s A Girl To Do?

 Let’s take a few lessons from Williamina Fleming and the “Harem Effect.”

#1 Learn To Get Credit Where Credit Is Due To You

Even without a formal education in astronomy, Williamina Fleming discovered 10 novae, 52 nebulae (including the Horsehead Nebula), 310 variable stars and the hot dense stars now known as white dwarfs. And these were only a few of her achievements.

According to Sue Nelson in Williamina Fleming: Star of Scotland Pickering did not name Fleming as co-author, in Draper Index, he at least credited her work in the book. She was recognized for her contribution within the astronomical community.

“At first Fleming was also uncredited for the Horsehead nebula, as a result of the star index catalogue’s compiler only naming Pickering, but this was amended by the second version years later.”

#2 Embrace All Opportunities To Advance Your Career

In spite of his shortcomings, Pickering encouraged the women in his “harem” to attend conferences and present papers. Many of the female scientists in his harem went on to make profound contributions and their data provided the empirical foundations for larger astronomical theory.

#3 Embrace All Opportunities To Advance Your Work

According to Smithsonian Magazine’s Women who Mapped the Universe And Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect, 

“Pickering allowed some women to make telescopic observations, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, women were barred from producing real theoretical work and were instead relegated to analyzing and reducing the photographs. These reductions, however, served as the statistical basis for the theoretical work done by others. Chances for great advancement were extremely limited.”

#4 Learn How To Negotiate Your Salary. Get Help If You Need It!

Williamina Fleming had already established her reputation at Harvard College Observatory. Still, she was working 60-hour weeks for $1,500 a year, far less than a newly employed male assistant. At the time, she was paying for her son to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Imagine what a head hunter would do with her career today.

#5 Keep Your Eye On Your Prize

Williamina Fleming’s journals show that she was all but buried in her workload of mundane tasks. Although Pickering insisted these were of utmost value to his Observatory, was she holding herself back by tending to them instead of her greater career goals? Could she have utilized assistants to help her own progress?

She wrote in her journal:

“Looking after the numerous pieces of routine work which have to be kept progressing, searching for confirmation of objects discovered elsewhere, attending to scientific correspondence, getting material in form for publication, etc, has consumed so much of my time during the past four years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am especially interested.”

“The Director, however, says that my time employed in the above work is of more value to the Observatory so I have delegated my measures of variables etc to Miss Leland and Miss Breslin. I hope, however, to be able soon to finish the measures of the out of focus plates and to get well settled down to my general classification of faint spectra for the new Draper catalogue.”

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