Women’s Equality Day: Pioneering Women in STEM

Women in STEMJust over 45 years ago today, 500,000 women marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate the anniversary of the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment. Since that day, Aug. 26 has been annually celebrated in the U.S. as Women’s Equality Day – a celebration of a major turning point in the women’s rights movement: the right to vote.

While women’s move toward equality has gained much momentum since the 1920s, there have been plenty of bumps in the road – especially for women in science, technology, engineering, and math.

History may not have always been kind to women, but they’ve always been there – building the early foundation of modern science and breaking gender barriers in innovation and discovery.

Take Nettie Stevens (born 1861), the foremost researcher in sex determination, whose work was initially rejected because of her sex. Or Mary Engle Pennington (born 1872), an American chemist at the turn of the 20th century, pioneering research that allows us to process, store, and ship food safely. Barbara McClintock (born 1902) was deemed crazy when she suggested that genes jump from chromosome to chromosome. Of course, she was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of genetic transportation.

Through the years, women in STEM have worked tirelessly to break the hardest glass ceilings and close the gender gap.

Edith Clark (born 1883) pursued engineering and the turn of the 20th century and became the first professionally employed electrical engineer in the U.S. in 1922 – paving a new road for female predecessors. Grace Hopper (born 1906) broke the mold in computing, developing computer languages written in English rather than mathematical notation – changing the technology industry forever.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women in STEM made up only 7 percent of the workforce in 1970. That number jumped to 23 percent by 1990. However, it grew by just three percent between 1990 and 2011.
While the number of women in STEM may not be growing at the accelerated pace it once was, many believe that conditions are improving for young women who choose to enter into this career path. More female students now have the opportunity to purse a Masters, PhD, or postdoctoral position.

And with that, women continue to break barriers and accelerate innovation. ECS past President Esther Takeuchi’s contributions to the development of the battery system that is used to power cardiac defibrillators was credited by President Obama in 2008 for “saving millions of lives.” And Lydia Villa Komaroff, a trailblazer in the field of molecular biology who was once told by an advisor that women do not belong in chemistry, discovered that bacteria could be engineered to produce human insulin.

(MORE: Listen to our podcast with Takeuchi on engineering life-saving batteries.)

While there are still gender gaps to be closed and barriers to be broken, if history can teach us anything, it is that women will continue to strive and make an immense impact in STEM. In the world of Grace Hopper, “A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”

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