Women in STEM Fields

5 minutes

"If we're going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we've got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math." —First Lady Michelle Obama, September 26, 2011

The White House recently announced a goal to increase and support the participation of women and girls, as well as other underrepresented groups, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The Career Training USA team would like to reflect on that goal and highlight our female participants currently interning and training in STEM fields. The participation of women in STEM fields is essential to the continued development and innovation of the scientific community, but unfortunately throughout history, female participation has been consistently lower than that of men. Women in STEM jobs experience a smaller wage gap compared to men by earning 33 percent more than those in non-STEM jobs. Increasing opportunities for women in these fields is not only important for continued economic success, but it is also important for gender equality worldwide.

Gertrude Elion in her lab with George Hitchings in 1948[/caption]

Historical Female Leaders in STEM

Below are some examples of adventurous women who challenged the status quo and inspired some of the greatest discoveries of our time.

  1. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to become a medical doctor in the United States. Not only was she the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school, she was also a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States. Blackwell viewed medicine as a means for social and moral reform.
  2. Nettie Stevens is credited as having discovered that sex determination is determined by an organism's genetics. Through her work with mealworms, Nettie figured out that the males produced sperm with X and Y chromosomes and that females produced reproductive cells with only X chromosomes.
  3. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the world's first electronic computer and the first programmers were all women. They were Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. These women had been working at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II calculating ballistics trajectories by hand and were selected to be part of this project.
  4. Admiral Grace Hopper was the first woman to graduate from Yale with a PhD in mathematics and the first woman to reach the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Hopper invented the first computer compiler in 1952. She also popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to one of the first modern programming languages.
  5. Roberta Williams is a video game designer and is considered to be one of the most influential PC game designers of the 1980s and 1990s. She is credited with creating the graphic adventure game genre. Her first major success is a game called King's Quest and features a large and expansive world that can be explored by players.
  6. The German physicist and mathematician, Maria Goeppert-Mayer is prominent for her numerous contributions to the field of physics. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical physics in 1963 and second woman in history to win a Nobel Prize— the first being Marie Curie. She is most famous for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.
  7. American marine biologist, writer and naturalist, Rachel Louise Carson is famous for advancing the global environmental movement through her writings. She is regarded as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.
  8. Barbara McClintock made a great name as the most distinguished cytogeneticist in the field of science. Her breakthrough in the 1940s and 1950s of mobile genetic elements, or "jumping genes," won her the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
  9. American pharmacologist and biochemist, Gertrude B. Elion is famous for her scientific discovery of drugs to treat leukemia and herpes and to prevent the rejection of kidney transplants. This discovery earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988.

"Don't be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don't let others discourage you or tell you that you can't do it. In my day I was told women didn't go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn't." – Gertrude B. Elion

Challenges and Solutions for Women in STEM Fields:

Challenge 1: Women tend to have a harder time finding female mentors in STEM occupations. A more experienced employee can show you the ropes and promote your accomplishments. This is important for anyone in any career and especially important for women in STEM.

Solution 1: If you can't find a mentor at your host organization or future employer in your home country, join a professional association. Many associations offer networking and mentoring opportunities. Check out the Association for Women in Science, the Society of Women Engineers, or the Association for Women in Mathematics, and be sure to look into local chapters as well.

Challenge 2: A woman in a STEM field might work mainly or exclusively with men, and it may be difficult to be accepted as part of the group. It's not always easy to know what to do about subtle or unintentional exclusion.

Solution 2: Work for a company with female-friendly policies and programs. Take time to research potential employers and find out if they understand and want to reduce the challenges for women working in male-dominated occupations. There's also legal help if you face harassment or discrimination at your workplace.

Challenge 3: Gender differences will often become more evident in a work place. For example, men and women can have different communication styles. If you're a woman working mostly with men, your daily reality will be different than if you were in a female-dominated workplace.

Solution 3: Educate yourself. Read up on gender differences in communication, and learn what to expect by talking to women in STEM fields who can share insights. Don't wait to be asked before offering an opinion. Learn how to handle mistakes and how to say no to unreasonable requests.

Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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