In the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), women are vastly underrepresented, with men outnumbering them three to one. And while women have made significant contributions to the industry, their achievements have often been overlooked. So how do we encourage young girls to pursue their interests in STEM when it seems like that world only caters to men?
Charting a Path to STEM Careers
Studies show that when young girls see their role models in careers that match their own interests, they’re more likely to pursue that field as well. One interesting example of this is Dana Scully’s character in the classic science fiction television show The X-Files. Portrayed by Gillian Anderson, Scully was both an FBI agent and a forensic pathologist. While the show was on air during the 1990s, the number of women who entered the STEM field skyrocketed.
So now your Rebel wants to be like their hero—real or fictional—and pursue a career in STEM … how do you help them succeed? Rather than relying on intrinsic talent, nurturing a set of skills is a more successful path to this field. A study by the American Association of University Women showed that “by creating a ‘growth mindset’ environment, teachers and parents can encourage girls’ achievement and interest in math and science.”
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media found that, “women who regularly watch The X-Files are significantly more likely to have considered going into a STEM career, majored in a STEM field in college, and worked in a STEM profession.” This was coined as “The Scully Effect.”
But what exactly is a “growth mindset”? Carol Dweck, the Stanford University professor credited with creating the phrase, believes “that your basic qualities— like how smart you are or whether you’re good at math—are things you can change, through your own efforts and help from others.” These ‘growth mindset’ environments are rapidly being adopted, with one indicator of its success being the increase in girls’ math scores on the SATs. The AAUW found that, “thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.”
More than ever, it’s important to combat the lack of gender diversity in STEM, as girls and women continue to be led into roles that fit into traditional and outdated gender stereotypes. Fostering their interest at an early age is key, as well as offering them role models in the field that were not only successes, but championed for themselves against adversity.
Read on to learn more about 11 inspiring women in STEM; some you may already know and some you may be surprised to learn how big of an impact they made in their field, even if they did not receive credit for it during their time.
Historic STEM HEROES YOU SHOULD KNOW
Alice Ball transformed the medical treatment of leprosy. She first began her research at the University of Hawaii in 1915, where she was both the first woman and the first African American to graduate with a master’s degree from the school. At the time, leprosy was highly stigmatized and considered fatal, and patients were often exiled to leper colonies. The best treatment available was in the form of chaulmoogra oil, extracted from an Indian tree. Ball discovered a method to inject the oil, so the body could absorb it better. Rather than suffering from exile, patients were cured.
Her method continued to be the best form of treatment for over twenty years. Unfortunately, Ball passed away a year after her discovery, at the age of 24. Shortly after her death, one of her colleagues published a paper and took most of the credit for the treatment, minimizing her contributions. Ball was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when professors at the University of Hawaii found records of her research. Today, Hawaii celebrates Alice Ball Day on February 28th every year and in 2019, the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added her name to its main building, in recognition of her contributions to science and global health research.
Hedy Lamarr was a prolific inventor during her time, but her inventions were often overlooked because she was mostly seen as a pretty face. While working as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, she developed a new traffic light, a capsule that carbonated water, and made certain airplanes more efficient. When World War II broke out in her home country of Austria, she knew she needed to do something to support the Allied Powers. In partnership with composer and fellow inventor George Antheil, they developed a technology called “frequency hopping,” which prevented enemies from jamming submarine’s torpedo radio signals.to help torpedoes hit their targets while remaining undetected by enemy scanners. However, the technology was never used during the war.
While Lamarr had a patent for her technology, it expired before she ever made any money. It was years later that her work was used as a foundation for Wi-Fi and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth. Since then, Lamarr has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Rosalind Franklin was a skilled X-ray crystallographer and chemist whose work was central to the understanding of DNA, RNA, and viruses. She spent countless hours photographing DNA, eventually capturing a photo of its double helix structure. Unfortunately, her work was sent to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used her photos as the basis of their DNA model and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Although Franklin never received credit for her work during her lifetime, she is now recognized for her important contributions to science.
Famous Scientists who Changed the World
Marie Curie is the only person in history to have won two Nobel Prizes in two distinct fields: physics and chemistry. She and her husband Pierre conducted pioneering research in radioactivity and its effect on the treatment of tumors. Along with her outstanding accomplishments, Marie Curie has also left a lasting legacy of encouraging generations of women to follow their scientific aspirations.
From an early age, Grace Hopper showed an interest in engineering, always tinkering with anything she got her hands on. Joining the Navy during World War II, she was one of the original programmers who worked on the Harvard Mark I computer. She also contributed to the creation of COBOL, one of the earliest high-level programming languages. Hopper’s work not only attracted national prominence, but it received recognition on a global scale. She became the first and only woman to hold the distinguished fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973. Even after retiring, she was continually called on for her expertise.
American oceanographer and adventurer Sylvia Earle is renowned for her work on marine algae and for increasing public awareness on the dangers that overfishing and pollution pose to the oceans. Earle set the world record for the deepest unsupported dive and was a pioneer in using SCUBA equipment and creating deep-sea submersibles. Earle inspires millions worldwide to care about conservation with her message of positive change.
New STEM Heroes
Ann Makosinski began tinkering and inventing at a young age, and was soldering circuits by nine years old! She was soon competing in science fairs, focusing her research on alternative and sustainable energy. When a friend of hers in the Philippines told her about frequent power outages, an idea sparked. She wanted to invent a light source that did not require any batteries and could be charged just from body heat. And so the Hollow Flashlight was born.
Her invention won first place at both the Google Science Fair and Intel Science and Engineering Fair. She gave TEDx talks and was named one of TIME magazine’s 30 Under 30 World Changers—all before she graduated high school! Makosinski now runs her own company, Makotronics Enterprises, and is working on the eDrink Mug, which converts the excess heat from your coffee into energy to charge your phone!
Despite being born thousands of miles apart—Kaitlin Fritz in America and Olga Kravchenko in Ukraine—a college hackathon brought them together. Both Kravchenko and Fritz saw that museums were frequently geared towards adults and felt kids needed a more accessible way to engage. They founded Musemio, a VR gaming platform that immerses kids in history, using a basic cardboard headset and a smartphone. Since developing Musemio, they’ve worked with the London Transport Museum and Crisis UK to bring stories to life. Together, these two friends have changed the way children interact with culture and inspire other women to pursue careers in tech!
Hailing from an impoverished area of Costa Rica, Sandra Cauffman dreamt of working for NASA from a young age. In college, she double-majored in physics and electrical engineering and was able to secure a contract position at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center soon after graduating. She currently works as the deputy project manager for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission and has launched multiple satellites to Mars. She inspires with her determination and works to assist young people in overcoming prejudice and other challenges.
Yoky Matsuoka originally aspired to become a professional tennis player, but an injury derailed her plans. But she continued to find inspiration in tennis and fantasized about creating a robot to play tennis with her. In college, she studied robotics, focusing on the connection between computers and the nervous system. She eventually created mechanical arms that could aid stroke victims in regaining muscle control. She continues to develop technology to improve and change people’s lives.
This is just a short list of women who have made themselves known in the STEM field, though there are countless other women who have changed the industry with their contributions. Telling stories of women in STEM who are celebrated, are working today, and were even overlooked in their time is an important part of increasing awareness and letting young girls know that their dreams of working in science, engineering, math, and technology are a viable option. By giving them the skills and confidence to succeed in a field that has long been dominated by men, girls and young women can be part of a new generation of the quickly changing STEM world.
For more stories of awesome women who did incredible things in STEM and beyond, start your child’s Rebel Girls library with our two-book gift box set of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 and check out our app!