Eponyms in microbiology, another indicator of the gender gap in science

David Ruiz Arahal and Lola Giner Pérez
David Ruiz Arahal and Lola Giner Pérez
A study recently published in the International Journal of Microbial Systematics and Evolutionary Microbiology reveals entrenched inequality between men and women in the field of Microbiology, based on an analysis of prokaryotic nomenclature from a gender perspective. The work shows the scarce relationship between feminine eponyms and the contribution of women in this field of biology over the years. The article is a collaboration between the University of Valencia, the CSIC and the Leibniz Institut of Germany.

Gender inequalities in microbiology can be manifested in very different ways. The underrepresentation of women in decision-making bodies in academic, industrial and scientific environments is more than evident, even though gender equality is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In biology, one of the ways in which public recognition is granted to the most prominent personalities in each field is through the formation of scientific names derived from personal names, that is, through the granting of eponyms.

A team formed by scientists from the Department of Microbiology and Ecology of the University of Valencia, the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA, CSIC) and the Leibniz Institut of Germany have just published a study in the International Journal of Microbial Systematics and Evolutionary Microbiology, one of the journals of the Microbiology Society, which analyses prokaryotic eponyms - bacteria and archaea - from a gender perspective. This is the largest analysis in biological nomenclature ever carried out - more than 23,000 names - and the first time it has been carried out with this type of organisms. Data were obtained from the ’List of Prokaryotic Names with Status in Nomenclature (LPSN)’. Excluding new combinations, the etymologies of 23,315 unique names in the range of genus, species and subspecies were analysed - a total of 2018 names (8.7%) are eponyms - and the development of female participation over time was investigated.

According to the article, women began to be recognised very recently compared to men. The first woman honoured with an eponym was Delia E. Johnson in 1947, an American microbiologist who pioneered the study of chitinolytic soil bacteria with gliding motility, giving the eponym to the bacterium Cytophaga johnsonae . This was 124 years after the first time a man, the Italian physicist Serafino Serrati, was honoured with the eponym Serratia in 1823. "Only 14.8% of all prokaryotic eponyms refer to women, and this proportion is barely has improved since 1947, even though the contribution of women to Microbiology has considerably increased", comments David Ruiz Arahal, professor of Microbiology at the University of Valencia and head of the project. "In a recent source on the gender gap in science, microbiology was close to 45% authorship by women in 2016 with positive growth and parity forecast over a horizon of 5 years or less", adds the scientist.

The analysis also reveals that the gender gap also affects the number of multiple recognitions. Thus, among the four people honoured with more than seven eponyms, Louis Pasteur, Hans Georg Trüper and Qing-Sheng Fan appear, but only one woman, Wen-Xin Chen.

In order to change this trend and contribute to reducing the gender gap, the study encourages the proposal of new taxon names to honour scientists who can establish themselves as role models for new generations. "To do this, we compile lists from independent references that also provide notable biographical data. Naming prokaryotes after women who have contributed to microbiology or other sciences would, without a doubt, increase their visibility", explains Lola Giner Pérez, IATA researcher and co-signer of the article.

Reference : The gender gap in names of prokaryotes honouring persons. Heike M. Freese , Lola Giner-Pérez , Aharon Oren , Markus Göker , David R. Arahal. Microbiology Society . https://doi.org/10.1099/ijse­m.0.006115