What’s up with the STEM gender gap? Though female-identifying students are just as talented as their male-identifying counterparts when it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses, a large disparity still exists between the number of female-identifying and male-identifying professionals in these fields.
Spoiler alert: the majority of professionals in these fields identify as men.
In the Edutopia article Keeping Girls in STEM: 3 Barriers, 3 Solutions, Carly Berwick suggests that one major reason for the continued gender gap is the stereotype society perpetuates about STEM professionals. The main image that comes to mind when people think of a mathematician or scientist is a man, rather than a woman. Meanwhile, cultural norms and gender constructs often lead young women who have grown up loving STEM to give up on their dreams to pursue a career that seems more in line with gender stereotypes.
However, one way to combat the lack of women in STEM is to continue championing the efforts of women and minority STEM professionals and promoting the image of those women who have made major contributions to STEM fields.
Here are 7 famous women in STEM throughout history whose legacies continue to remind today’s hopeful women, and women of color, in STEM just how impactful they can be.
1. Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867 - 1934)
Marie Curie is one of the most well known women in the history of STEM fields. She is, so far, the only woman in the field of science to win the Nobel Prize in two separate scientific fields: physics and chemistry. In her time, she was the first female scientist to win a Nobel Prize at all.
In fact, she actually developed and coined the theory of radioactivity, which she used to invent mobile radiography units. These units then allowed her to help alleviate the suffering of French soldiers during World War I. Curie completed research with her husband based on radioactivity that allowed them to uncover two elements: polonium and radium.
2. Katherine Johnson (1918 - 2020)
Katherine Johnson helped pave the way for women of color in STEM fields with her mathematical work, which helped NASA’s first crewed spaceflight land on the moon in 1969. Originally, Katherine worked for NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and was segregated from white mathematicians, before working with an all-male team at NASA in 1958, when NASA took over NACA.
As a mathematician, Katherine calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for some of NASA’s most famous crewed flights. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
3. Jane C. Wright (1919 - 2013)
Jane Cooke Wright was most known for her contributions to chemotherapy as a surgeon and cancer researcher. Her major claim to fame was her development of a technique using human tissue culture instead of lab mice to test the effects that various drugs had on cancer cells.
Jane was also known as the pioneer for the use of methotrexate, a drug that treats breast cancer and skin cancer, as well as various autoimmune diseases.
4. Tu YouYou (1930 - Present)
Tu YouYou is famous for her contributions to pharmaceutical chemistry and the treatment of malaria. Though she lived in a culture that discouraged women from getting involved in STEM, she was able to help save millions of lives in South America, Africa, South China, and Southeast Asia after discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin and using those to treat malaria. She actually extracted artemisinin from woodworm, a form of herbal medicine originally used to treat fevers.
She won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015, becoming the first Chinese woman to do so. She is now 89-years-old and lives in Ningbo, China.
5. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947 - Present)
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi committed her career as both a scientist and activist to stopping the spread of aids. By discovering HIV, she helped lead to blood tests to detect the infection and to the development of antiretroviral medications that have allowed people with AIDS to manage their disease.
Françoise’s nickname is now “The HIV Hunter,” and she has spent her life not only developing science to help combat the AIDS epidemic but to also advocate for the diagnosis and treatment of all who suffer from it. In 2008, she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She is now 72-years-old and lives in Paris, France.
6. Lydia Villa-Komaroff (1947 - Present)
Lydia Villa-Komaroff works as a molecular and cellular biologist and has been an academic laboratory scientist, university administrator, and business woman. In 1978, as part of her postdoctoral research, she helped to discover how bacterial cells could be utilized to generate insulin. She helped find a molecule responsible for the degeneration of brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease, leading to an entire field devoted to the research of how to diagnose and treat the disease.
She was only the third Mexican American woman in the United States to ever receive a doctorate degree in the sciences. She co-founded The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). She is now 72-years-old and serves on various academic boards and committees.
7. Mae C. Jemison (1956 - Present)
Mae C. Jemison was the first ever Black American woman to travel to space. She was a doctor for the Peace Corps for two years after graduating with a medical degree from Cornell University but in 1987 joined NASA’s astronaut corps.
Mae orbited the earth from September 12th to 20th in 1992 with the STS-47 missions. She then, a year later, founded a tech research company and established a non-profit educational foundation that began the 100 Year Starship program funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
Mae has been inducted into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. She is now 63-years-old and lives in Decatur, Alabama.
This inspiring list of women in STEM is only the beginning of a very long list of female-identifying individuals who have completely changed the course of history through their impactful work. When students read about these individuals, they should see a list of capable women who are also intersectional, defying not only the gender gap but also the racial gap in STEM fields.
With that, for all those high school students and recent grads who are on the path to become the next famous women in STEM, check out the NSHSS Foundation STEM Scholarship 2020 and other STEM-related scholarships to help you reach your dreams. You can do this!