Wonder Women: Underappreciated Voices in STEM
The struggle of women trying to break into STEM is a chapter in a millennia old story of women fighting for the right to education. While some ancient cultures like the Spartans allowed for men and women to learn together, other cultures formed the lasting idea that women’s education should be limited to skills that would aid them in being better wives and mothers. Money and connections enabled a handful of women to receive college degrees in the 1600s, but many famous female scholars of the time only obtained their education through joining a convent. It took until the 1800s for women’s colleges to prominently appear, paving the way for co-ed universities. However, this was partially made possible by the notion that better educated women would make better mothers. It was not until after World War II that societal expectations changed and women finally began enrolling in colleges in large numbers and pursuing different careers. In some careers, like those in STEM fields, the fight for recognition is ongoing.
In my most recent article, I mentioned the tragic death of Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist who has only recently been given credit for helping to discover the double helix structure of DNA. She was able to obtain a college degree in 1938, and her work during World War II with the structures of coal and graphite led to her earning a PhD from Cambridge in 1945. She began research in X-ray chromatography, but was limited in this work when she moved to King’s College. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins was reportedly less than pleased to find out that Rosalind was working with him and not for him. He spent significant time with Watson and Crick, a team whose thoughts on DNA structure lacked conclusive evidence at the time. They were able to get this final evidence when Wilkins showed them an X-ray chromatography image taken from Franklin’s files that was shared without her knowledge while she was moving out of the lab. After leaving the college, Franklin was forced out of DNA research and instead helped form the basis of modern virology. She died in 1958, while the Nobel Prize for research based on her work was handed to those who vilified her in death, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. Even with a proper education, she could not be recognized in her own time because her colleagues refused to acknowledge her intelligence and value.
Seeing the difficulties in the formal science world, it is no surprise that women outside of it struggled to be heard. Hedy Lamarr, well-known for her acting career during the Golden Age of Hollywood, was highly intelligent, despite not having the degrees of other scientists and engineers. It is said that she drew a design for new airplane wings simply using inspiration from the fastest fish and bird she could find in books. This design even made its way into the aerospace world when Lamarr showed it to her industry friend, Howard Hughes. Her greatest invention was a means of frequency hopping to guide torpedoes. She and George Antheil designed and patented it together to assist with the war. They donated it to the U.S. Navy, where it stayed ignored and unused for years. Today, that technology is credited with laying the foundation for Wifi and Bluetooth. Lamarr started to gain minimal recognition for this invention around the time of her death in 2000. In more recent years, she was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Both these women were directly trying to make a difference with their work and failed to find recognition in their own time. An interesting parallel to this is the story of Henrietta Lacks, who revolutionized the world of medicine without even trying. In 1951, she was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital and diagnosed with cervical cancer. As part of her treatment, a sample of her cells was taken for research. While other cells died off quickly, her cells continued to regenerate and have ever since. Lacks unfortunately passed away soon after her diagnosis due to the severity of her illness and the limitations of treatment at the time. However, her legacy has been extraordinary. Her cells allow researchers to study cell biology with a line of living human cells. They have helped to develop vaccines and devise studies for a multitude of diseases. They were cloned. They have been to space. Unknown to her, she has become one of the most important women in medicine. Every year, Johns Hopkins makes great efforts to recognize her and acknowledge her contributions. There is even a scholarship in her name that helps students pursue careers in medicine. Her legacy has impacted so many people, and it is time that we all recognize her greatness.
Stories like those mentioned have led us to today, a time when women are still entering STEM majors and STEM careers in smaller numbers than men and getting paid less for those jobs (Beede, et al). As we attempt to rectify the mistakes of the past, we must work to ensure that the future is different. It is time to recognize every voice that wants a place at the table and every person who helps make a difference in research. Research is a collaborative effort, and anyone with the ability to advance our knowledge should be given the opportunity. Women have fought for centuries to receive education and recognition. I am grateful to be able to pursue my career in STEM, and I can only hope that the future is bright for every person who chooses this path.
Beede, David N. and Julian, Tiffany A. and Langdon, David and McKittrick, George and Khan, Beethika and Doms, Mark E., Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation (August 1, 2011). Economics and Statistics Administration Issue Brief No. 04-11. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1964782 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1964782