In this month’s issue of Physics World , French physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot – the granddaughter of Marie Curie – talks to reporter Tushna Commissariat about the scientific legacy of her family, delves into what’s known as the "Curie complex" and gives her own tips for scientific success.
As the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the first person and only woman to win one twice, and the first woman professor at the University of Paris, Marie Curie’s work and life undoubtedly inspired and encouraged women to take up scientific careers.
However, the idolized story of her success has led to both women and men feeling they can dismiss women who do not meet the unrealistically high standards that Curie inadvertently seemed to have set.
This so-called "Curie complex" – where female scientists are considered equal to their male counterparts only if they are, like Curie, academically superior, as well as modest and family-orientated – was first observed in the 1980s by science historian Margaret Rossiter and was later tackled in Julie Des Jardins’ 2011 book The Madame Curie Complex.
While there are more women studying and working in science than ever before, there are still many problems left to overcome. From the surprisingly low number of girls being encouraged to take up STEM subjects after their GCSEs, to the seemingly double standards that arise when it comes to helping women (and ethnic minorities) pick a suitable PhD topic, to the unconscious biases that crop up when both men and women are hiring early-career scientists (male students are favoured over female) and even the portrayal of female scientists in the media, women face many biases throughout their careers.
Many people still identify Curie as the most famous female physicist, more than 80 years after her death. Langevin-Joliot – who actively promotes careers for women in science – spoke to Commissariat after addressing a meeting in March on “The lives and times of pioneering women in physics” organized by the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World).
She admits that her grandmother’s status is almost mythical today, but adds that as “my brother [Pierre] and I were not brought up in this myth” she herself never suffered from the Curie complex. Langevin-Joliot also feels that she personally has not been the subject of gender bias in her career, although whether her impressive lineage protected her from it is not clear.
“When I was a young researcher, it didn’t bother me at all as there were a significant number of young women in my lab,” she says. It was only as she began attending conferences, especially outside of France, that Langevin-Joliot noticed for the first time the distinct lack of women in physics. In the 1960s and 1970s, the only female British career scientist she recalls meeting is Daphne Jackson, the UK’s first female professor of physics.
Today, Langevin-Joliot encourages young researchers to pick a topic that they are truly interested in, rather than choosing an area that happens to be in vogue. She also urges students to visit a few labs they are keen on joining to get a better idea of the realities of the work they will do and the people they might have to work with.
According to Langevin-Joliot, Curie’s life “showed science as a human adventure”. Curie herself believed that a combination of self-confidence and diplomacy throughout her career helped her to achieve her goals. “There is a comment of hers that I like very much,” says Langevin-Joliot: “‘I have given a great deal of time to science because I wanted to – because I loved research.’”