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Across the science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM), women have made a wealth of exceptional contributions throughout the years. Unfortunately, the recognition and representation of women in STEM fields is often lacking. Although things have come a long way since the early years of the Scientific Revolution, women in the STEM workforce are still underrepresented.

With a better understanding of how women in STEM have changed the world, the current state of women in STEM fields, and strategies to enhance women’s participation in STEM, perhaps you can be part of the solution.

Pioneering Women in STEM Fields

Many women have had an impact on STEM fields, computer science, and related industries over the decades. These trailblazers have changed the way we live our everyday lives with their innovative thinking.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin is best known for her scientific work in the early 1950s when she conducted research that would later prove the double-helix structure of DNA. Sadly, Franklin’s contributions to the field went largely unrecognized until after she passed away at age 37. However, her work continues to inform the study of DNA today.

Katherine Johnson

A pioneer in mathematics and aeronautics, Katherine Johnson worked tirelessly to become a member of NASA’s Space Task Group. In 1960, she went on to co-author a paper with another engineer about calculations for putting spacecraft into orbit. This work, along with her calculations throughout her time with NASA, helped put astronauts in space and even put the first humans on the moon.

Florence Nightingale

Perhaps one of the most famous women in STEM (before it was called STEM) was Florence Nightingale. Known as “the Lady with the Lamp,” she was in charge of nursing during the Crimean War and spearheaded numerous reforms in both nursing education and hygiene.

What many people do not realize is that Florence Nightingale also made some impressive innovations in the field of statistics, taking a data-centered approach to medical practices that provided key insights into the nursing field.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie is perhaps one of the most famous women in STEM, having worked as both a physicist and chemist at a time when it was still quite uncommon to see women in these fields. Most notably, Curie was famous for discovering the elements polonium and radium alongside her husband.

In 1903, Curie won the Nobel Prize in physics, followed by winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911. After her husband passed in 1906, she also served as the first female professor at the Sorbonne.

Mary Lucy Cartwright

Even during her studies at St. Hugh’s College at Oxford, Mary Lucy Cartright set herself apart by being one of the only women to formally study mathematics at the time. She was heavily involved in the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research during World War II, where she worked alongside mathematician John Littlewood to study solutions to the famed Van der Pol oscillator. Their research formed the basis of what is today known as chaos theory, which is integral to the study of dynamical systems in mathematics.

Elizabeth Blackburn

More recently, Elizabeth Blackburn has blazed her trail in STEM by earning a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work discovering the secrets of an enzyme known as telomerase. This research, as well as her publication of a book (alongside Dr. Elissa Epel) about telomerase in everyday life, has made her a notable contributor to STEM in modern society.

Rachel Carson

In the environmental science field, Rachel Carson has made some incredible contributions. Carson began her STEM career in marine biology, where she worked with conservation groups. During this time, she grew aware of (and increasingly concerned about) the issue of pesticide overuse.

She went on to publish Silent Spring, a book about how modern pesticides harm the environment. This publication ended up making a huge difference in public opinion, ultimately resulting in a ban on the problematic DDT compound and additional changes to federal pesticide policies.

Marissa Mayer

Although Marissa Mayer originally intended to work as a pediatric neurosurgeon, she ended up studying a blend of computer science, linguistics, and psychology during her college years at Stanford. Ultimately, she ended up accepting a job at Google upon graduating, where she quickly worked through the ranks and ended up establishing the search homepage that we still use to this day.

Today, Mayer works with AI technology, putting her expertise and knowledge to use to draw on intelligent algorithms.

Barbra Liskov

After studying mathematics at Berkley and Princeton, STEM pioneer Barbara Liskov began her career in computer programming. She also became the first woman in the United States to earn a doctoral degree from a computer science department.

Throughout her career, Liskov developed a variety of programming languages, including CLU (which she created with her students). She was also the recipient of the 2008 Turing Award from the Association of Computing Machines due to her lifelong contributions to our modern understanding of fault tolerance and distributed computing.

Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman grew up around engineering and always found math and science interesting, so it was not much surprise to those who knew her when she was the only female in a high school programming class. Upon completing high school, Perlman went on to study programming at MIT, where she was involved in creating a kid-friendly version of the LOGO programming language.

During this work, Perlman discovered how quickly children could excel in programming and went on to serve as a pioneer of childhood programming education. She went on to create the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) to keep data from being trapped in loops.

The Current State of Women in STEM Fields

Women have undoubtedly made a huge impact in STEM fields throughout the years. Despite their contributions, women continue to be underrepresented in many STEM fields.

Statistics on Women’s Representation in STEM Globally

According to research by AAUW, “women make up only 34 percent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math.” Even before entering the workforce, women are underrepresented in the studies of these fields. For example, only about 21 percent of engineering majors and 19 percent of computer and information science majors are women.

Factors Influencing the Underrepresentation of Women in STEM

Why are there fewer women studying and working in STEM? There are many potential factors to consider. First, STEM fields have always been male dominated. Unfortunately, this tends to perpetuate exclusionary cultures that can make it difficult for women and other minorities to break into these fields. Combine this with gender stereotypes surrounding STEM fields being “masculine” and it gets easier to see why fewer women enter these fields.

Finally, women generally have fewer role models in STEM to look up to and inspire their interests. This can lead to them pursuing other careers where they see more people who look like them doing interesting work.

Impact of Gender Disparity in STEM Fields

The gender disparity that has existed for so long in STEM creates a vicious cycle. As women continue to be underrepresented and face challenges breaking into STEM fields, the problem is perpetuated. And the consequences of underrepresentation can be dire. For example, fewer medical studies have been done on women, meaning many dosage recommendations and assumptions are based on male bodies. It can be difficult to quantify the harm caused by a lack of female representation in STEM, but a lack of diversity has a proven track record of word results in many fields.

Challenges Faced by Women in STEM

Even those working (or aspiring to work) in STEM continue to face challenges and invisible barriers.

Societal Barriers

Because many STEM fields have been male dominated for so long, women face inherent societal barriers as they try to enter STEM fields. A woman in STEM who chooses to pursue mathematics or computer science over a more “feminine” area of study, for example, may be questioned or otherwise unsupported in her journey. She may hear messages, whether from family members or teachers, indicating that less is expected of her in math or science classes because “girls are not as good at them as boys.” Such conditioning can be difficult to overcome.

Psychological Barriers

Many women also face psychological barriers, especially when they consider the difficulties they are going to face attempting to enter a male-dominated field. They may experience heightened stress and anxiety as they feel the pressure to prove they are as competent as the men in their respective fields.

Institutional Barriers

Historically, schools have steered girls away from STEM-related studies. This starts from a very early age and tends to continue well into high school and even college. These institutional barriers can make it difficult for women interested in STEM fields to take the classes they need to grow their skills.

Strategies to Enhance Women’s Participation in STEM

Across the globe, there are initiatives to increase women’s overall participation in STEM fields.

Role of Education in Promoting STEM Among Women

It all begins with education. Schools are encouraging more women to get involved in STEM through classes and related projects. Demonstrating to girls from a young age that they can get involved in STEM education could change the course of their professional lives.

Importance of Mentors and Role Models

Women also need to have more role models in STEM fields. By seeing other women find success in STEM positions, the next generation of women may be inspired to get into these fields themselves. Mentorship programs geared towards women and minorities at STEM businesses and organizations could also make a big difference.

Government Policies and Initiatives for Women in STEM

Across the globe, government agencies are spearheading initiatives to get more women involved in STEM. For example, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has collaborated with the White House Council on Women and Girls to increase female participation in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Women’s Contributions to Recent Technological Advancements

While many early pioneers in STEM paved the way for more women to get involved in these fields, the reality is that women are continuing to make a difference in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics today.

Women in Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence has been around for many years, but it has seen renewed interest in recent years as innovations like ChatGPT have taken the world by storm. We have already covered how female STEM workers like Marissa Mayer have spearheaded AI technology, developing new concepts and innovations that continue to change our everyday lives.

Women in Biotechnology

Women have also been paving new roads in the field of biotechnology, which has come a long way since Rosalind Franklin’s early studies of the DNA double-helix. As recently as 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won Nobel Prizes in chemistry for their work in genome editing.

How Can We Further Encourage Women to Pursue STEM Careers?

While there still exists a strong gender gap in STEM, there are plenty of initiatives taking place right now to get more women involved in these fields. From government programs to mentorship offerings and scholarships, this is likely the best time in history for women to pursue STEM careers.

What Are the Prospects for Women in STEM?

Women have been overcoming adversity and making a difference in STEM for centuries—and with recent contributions to STEM fields like AI and biotechnology, we are beginning to see the full potential of a STEM workforce led by capable women.

If you are interested in studying a STEM-related field and making a difference, Post University is proud to offer several degree programs in fields such as data sciencebiology, and computer information systems. These undergraduate programs are also offered online as well as in-person, making it possible for learn on a flexible schedule.

To learn more about any of the degree programs at Post University, get in touch with our team today. Ready to get started? You can complete your online application in minutes.

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