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Women In Science

In the US, August 26th is celebrated as “Women’s Equality Day,” to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 which gave White women the right to vote. This milestone was over 100 years after White men were afforded the same right. It would serve as a starting point, as voting rights for many Americans were expanded in the decades to follow.

While regarding equity through a holistic lens, it is important to view this milestone as a preliminary step in the long road toward inclusion for all people. We can celebrate, while acknowledging that there is more work to be done. With this in mind, we shift our focus to highlighting the diversity of Women in Science and their vast influence, despite undoubted societal obstacles.

As far back as the innovations of ancient Egypt, and stretching to the women currently working in S.T.E.M., women have contributed greatly to our current understanding of science. In some instances, women were credited for their work, while in many others, they were completely erased, only receiving honor in the years after their death; if at all.

At times in our history, women participated enthusiastically in scientific trials, and in others, they were experimented on without their consent. Women of various cultures have held the roles of midwife and medicine woman long before modern science was able to quantify their expertise. All of these experiences and more lend to the vastness of what we know now. We are indebted to the diverse group of women who have contributed to our shared knowledge of science.

The History

In the years following the colonization of America, male-dominated social norms and laws were clear to draw lines on the ‘acceptable’ place for women and what rights they were able to enjoy. Women of Color were not considered human, so restrictions of their rights were already implied and dutifully enforced. It is important to understand this in context when we consider intersectionality as it relates to the contributions of all women to science. The mere involvement in any field of study, let alone science, was in direct rebellion to a system designed to exclude women from the proverbial table.

In the 1700’s, women were barred from holding professional positions outside the home, except for writing or teaching. This would not deter them from developing passions in other realms, such as Botany and Plant Medicine. During this time, Botany was seen as an acceptable interest for women of the upper class, as it was not yet professionalized. America’s first known female botanist, Jane Colden, worked to identify over 400 plant species in New York and compiled a manuscript detailing how the plants could be used medicinally. Her drawings were descriptive and precise, and furthered the field of Botany for many years to come. Though she paved the way for many, she was not credited for her work during her life.

Unfortunately, this was common as Botany became more accepted into the developing world of professional science. What was once an acceptable ‘hobby’ for women became forbidden. The findings, research, and breakthroughs by women in early American Botany were accredited to men, and many of their stories were erased.

As the country progressed through the 1800’s and 1900’s, the scientific contributions of women were becoming more and more visible:

By the mid-1800s: Women were allowed to attend medical school:

In 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to be accepted and graduate from Medical School. She went on to open a women’s clinic and train hundreds of women to follow in her footsteps.

By the early 1900s: Women were making important discoveries and innovations in medicine:

In 1915, at age 23, Chemist Alice Ball developed a sustainable treatment for Leprosy using “The Ball Method.” She is the first Black woman to obtain a Master’s Degree from the University of Hawaii.

By the 1960s: Women were launching rockets into space:

In 1961, Mathematician and Aerospace Technologist Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory for the flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

In The Now

The many boundaries to women entering the professional science space have not been fully eradicated, and have taken on new forms. Presently in the United States, there are no laws that prohibit women from attending Universities or pursuing technical degrees. The obstacles currently center on access, visibility, and sexism in higher education and professional S.T.E.M. career paths.

The huge gender gap in S.T.E.M. presents a problem with equity. It’s not that women are not interested or capable of professional science. It is that the obstacles that they face while cultivating their interests present a prominent barrier. Inflexible work environments, high-cost education, and blatant discrimination in school and in work do not set all women up for success in S.T.E.M. Women who opt to raise families or lack resources to afford the cost of higher education cannot feasibly participate in unpaid or low paying internships. Because they are not able to intern in their fields of choice, they are not able to cultivate mentors or guidance from seasoned professionals or gain important knowledge relative to their field of study. In the event that they are able to gain access through mentorship, many women are faced with discrimination and harassment from their superiors and peers. This can lead to career dissatisfaction and lack of opportunity and proper access.

Particularly, with Women of Color entering careers in S.T.E.M., the conflation of sexism and racism is a major deterrent. The lack of visibility of women in science, particularly in leadership positions, can be deflating to up-and-coming young women. To imagine yourself somewhere you’ve never seen yourself makes it very hard to dream.

Despite the many challenges facing women in S.T.E.M. statistics are slowly moving in a positive direction. It is estimated currently that women make up 28% of the workforce in S.T.E.M. with Biological Scientists being the most common career path. Engineering is considered the least common profession for women as gender gaps are particularly high within highly compensated roles.

As S.T.E.M. professionals: What Can We Do About It?

Increase your visibility:

  • Lend your time to the organizations in your area that are helping students pursue S.T.E.M.

  • Become a mentor

  • Share your expertise freely with interns and new hires

Keep the conversation going:

  • Educate yourself on the impact of women in science

  • Share what you’ve learned with your peers.

  • Be an ally: if you witness inequity, say something


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