Women have made significant strides in society over the past few decades. Today, they make up nearly half of the American workforce. Yet the United States Census Bureau reports that they account for only 27% of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In part, this is because women are seldom encouraged to take up STEM-related career paths. Those who push through meet the effects of gender disparity in the workplace.
If you or someone you know are passionate about STEM, you may be looking for that last push to encourage you to commit to a STEM career — so why not look towards some of the most inspiring women of all time? Below are some inspiring real-life stories of STEM’s greatest women.
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When Marie Curie was born in Poland, the Russian Empire forbade women from studying in universities. Determined, she studied in Paris and wrote a thesis on radiation. She went on to discover the elements polonium and radium, unlocking knowledge on radioactivity that we use to treat cancer today. In the 2011 biography Radioactive, artist and writer Lauren Redniss narrates Curie’s life work, highlighting her achievement as the first female Nobel prize winner. Radioactive has since been adapted into a film starring British actress Rosamund Pike.
The mother of Wi-Fi
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Hedy Lamarr was a woman who could do it all. An actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood, she’s probably best known for her role as Delilah in the 1949 film, Samson and Delilah. Yet, she was also an inventor. During World War II, she developed a frequency-hopping technology to help missiles find their targets without being intercepted on the radio waves. The US military rejected its use — so it instead became the foundation of wireless communication technologies like Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. You can learn more about her work in the 2017 documentary Bombshell - The Hedy Lamarr Story.
Fuelling the Space Race
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were four human supercomputers stuck teaching math in segregated public schools. Then, they were recruited by NASA in its desperate effort to win the Space Race. Non-fiction author Margot Lee Shetterly recounts their journey in Hidden Figures— an explosive piece that was adapted into film the same year it was published. It reveals that though the four African American women were discriminated against due to their race and gender, their prodigious mathematical skills helped them worked their way up to some of the highest positions NASA had to offer.
Ford’s first female engineer
Inspired by then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s call for both boys and girls to study engineering, Damyanti Gupta became the only woman in her engineering class at university. She moved to America to join the Ford Motor Company after reading about its history. When told that she couldn’t be hired because Ford didn’t employ any females, Gupta replied: “I'm here, and unless you hire me, you'll never have any." She then continued to garner promotions at work while successfully raising her two young boys. You may know one of her sons — neurosurgeon and CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta.
Discovering the Kuiper Belt
Jane Luu’s family fled to America during the Vietnam War. After earning a degree in physics on a scholarship at Stanford, she pursued further education while working at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. She admitted that she wasn’t unusually interested in looking at the stars when she was a kid — but seeing the photos taken by Voyager probes on the walls of the lab inspired her to study planetary astronomy. Luu went on to win a Kavli Prize in 2012 for her discovery of the Kuiper Belt, a circumstellar disc in the outer solar system.
The world of STEM holds many challenging careers — and these women prove that you can succeed at it if you love and commit to the work that you do. If you want to explore possible career paths, take a look at our SheHeroes STEM Career Path Curriculum.
Content written by Chloe Franco
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