Every year, we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 as a way to commemorate the movement for women’s rights. This global holiday honors the social, economic, cultural, political – and in our case – scientific achievements of women.
Additionally, International Women’s Day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Currently, women remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce, although to a lesser degree than the past. According to the National Science Foundation, the greatest gender disparities still exist in the fields of engineering, computer science, and physical science.
In the U.S., women make up half of the entire workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering field. While the gender gap may still exist for women in STEM, many phenomenal female scientists have entered the field over the years and left an indelible mark on the science.
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. Joan Berkowitz worked on designing experiments in metals melting and eutectic solidification in space for the lunar space program, later becoming the first female president of ECS in 1979. 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, that percentage has grown only incrementally in the past few years. 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 pursue a MA, 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.” Established researchers like Johna Leddy and Lili Deligianni continue to push the boundaries in scientific excellence. Early investigators like Shirley Meng work to close the gender gap in STEM, providing opportunities for young girls in the sciences and working on the cutting-edge of energy storage.
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.”