Breaking the Status Quo: Women who changed Science

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As March comes to close, we feel like it is appropriate to look back at Women’s History Month by celebrating influential women in the social sciences. It started in 1978 as a week celebration in Santa Rosa, California by the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission. Today, it’s a national annual celebration due to its importance and popularity. Given that we live in a patriarchal society, it’s easy for women and their contributions to be easily overlooked or diminished. Therefore, it’s important for women’s achievements, leadership, courage, and strength to be given a space to be recognized and celebrated as much as men’s. Women’s History Month is used as a month to celebrate the accomplishments that women contributed to American history. These accomplishments can be seen in every aspect of American life. 

Women in social science have affected much of the modern world, including the way we approach ­research here at The Center for Advanced Hindsight. At our lab, our goal is to use behavioral science to make people happier, healthier, and wealthier. We would like to highlight a few among many women that have contributed in a way that reflects our goal. These women are Mamie Phipps Clark and Gertrude Cox.


Mamie Phipps Clark

Mamie Phipps Clark was born on October 18, 1917. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Howard University. Mamie Clark is known for studying the development of self-consciousness in African American children. It all started with her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness in Negro Pre-School Children.” This study consisted of Mamie showing young Black children two identical dolls, with the exception of one doll being White and the other being Black. The children were asked a series of questions pertaining to which doll they wanted to play with, which one was nice, and which doll looked like them. Her study showed that the majority of the Black children preferred to play with the White doll, stated that the white doll was nicer, and that it resembled them the most. She later met her husband, Kenneth Clark, and they continued this line of work together. Their findings indicate that Black children become aware of their racial identity around three years old and that segregation can have a negative effect on one’s self-image.

This research was so significant that it played a major role in the Brown vs Board of Education case. This court case argued to end racial segregation in schools. Clark’s study was used in this argument to show that segregation had harmful effects on children, and it was instrumental in the Supreme Court’s ruling that racial segregation in U.S schools was unconstitutional. In all, Mamie Clark’s work has paved the way for society to understand self-concept among minorities.

Mamie’s Clark work is important because it enables us to understand the mental well-being among minorities and how society can influence or affect it. Check out these scientists below to see how they are currently contributing to our understanding of racial identity among minorities: Erin Cooley of Colgate University, Carla Hunter of The University of Illinois, and Janet Helms of Boston College.


Gertrude Cox

Gertrude Cox was born on January 13, 1900. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Master’s degree in Statistics from Iowa State. Gertrude Cox is known for an array of accomplishments. For example, she founded one of the first statistics departments at North Carolina State College (later renamed North Carolina State University) in 1941. Years later, she became the first woman to be elected to the International Statistical Institute (1949). In 1950, she co-authored one of the most well-known statistical books, Experimental Designs.

In this book, Cox emphasized that researchers should be involved in all aspects of research; from the planning stages to analyzing the data to randomizing when possible. Also, she pioneered the use of blocks. Blocks are essentially similar groups within a study (e.g., grouping by gender). Randomizing within a block helps to remove variability. Today, Cox’s book is still in print, and her principles are continued to be used among scientists.

Cox’s work is important because she paved the way for women to be in roles that women had not previously inhabited. Being a pioneer in this respect allowed Cox to use her strengths to promote the use of statistics and build a statistical empire. For example, Cox played a major role in funding the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in North Carolina. RTI’s goal is to improve the human condition through science-based solutions. Today, RTI has more than 25 offices across the United States. Check out more about RTI here.


Mamie Phipps Clark and Gertrude Cox are among many that have broken barriers to conduct research that has paved the way for modern society. As humans, we tend to not like change and continue with the way things currently are (i.e., status quo). However, Mamie Phipps Clark, Gertrude Cox, and others challenged this status quo despite facing discrimination and many obstacles. They used their intelligence in a way that has paved the way for all in the science realm. Though our list doesn’t represent all women in the social science field, one should interpret this blog as a stepping stone to uncover more fascinating women that have broken many barriers in this field.


Shanta Ricks is a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier. You can reach her at


Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Volume 66, Number 3, Retrieved from  

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