Recognizing Innovative Women

by Latifa Lyles on March 24, 2014 · 6 comments

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Dialogue on Diversity in honor of Women’s History Month. One of my co-panelists was Dr. Erin Cadwalader, a neurobiologist and fellow at the Association for Women in Science. As we celebrate women’s remarkable achievements in society, including major advances in educational attainment and in the labor market, we are taking advantage of this month to acknowledge women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math jobs.

Although jobs in STEM fields are growing in the United States, STEM jobs pay women significantly more than those in non-STEM occupations, and women in these fields experience a smaller wage gap relative to men, women’s participation in STEM and other “non-traditional” jobs remains strikingly low.

There are many cultural barriers that discourage girls from entering STEM fields, but as Dr. Cadwalader highlighted, there are also significant structural barriers that discourage women who enter these fields from staying there. Chief among those are biases faced in hiring, promotion, and recognition, as well as inadequate support for working mothers.

Quote from Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space: "What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire - the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery."

Even during Women’s History Month, as we recognize the many women who have shaped the world we live in today, the amazing work of women in STEM fields is often overlooked. With that in mind, I wanted to take a moment to recognize a few of the women in these fields that have made incredible contributions – not just to their field, but to the entire population.

  • Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and author whose work sparked a new conscientiousness about the environment, and was influential in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Her most famous work, Silent Spring, elevated concerns about human impact on the environment to the national stage. To this day, the environmental awareness that she brought to the fore can be seen in the decisions of policymakers, businesses, and individuals.
  • Grace Murray Hopper was a computer scientist, mathematician and a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. A pioneer of computer programming, Hopper developed the first compiler, which allows coders to program computers with words instead of numbers. Throughout her extensive career, her work on compilers and programming languages revolutionized computer programming.
  • Dr. Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to go to space, and is the current director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. As an astronaut, she went to space four times and logged over 1,000 hours in orbit, performing research and enhancing the International Space Station. Before her career with NASA, she was a research engineer and was awarded three patents.
  • Mary Golda Ross, a member of the Cherokee Nation, was the first Native American female engineer and had an impressive career with Lockheed Aircraft Corp. She was one of the 40 founding members of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” advanced development projects team, where she performed research on satellites and interplanetary space travel.
  • Maria Telkes performed prominent research in the area of clean solar energy, and in 1947 she created the first thermoelectric power generator. She received 20 patents over the course of her career, using solar technology for everything from heating a house to refrigerating food and even purifying water.

We need to overcome the myth that STEM jobs are “men’s jobs.” The Obama administration clearly understands the importance of getting more women into these occupations. There are currently initiatives in several areas of the federal government working on getting more women into these fast-growing and high-paying jobs, such as the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Education. Even this week’s episode of the White House’s “We the Geeks” Google Hangout series focused on women role models in STEM fields.

Women like the ones I just named show that businesses could be missing out on the next big innovation if they don’t get past their reservations about left-brained women. As these luminaries have demonstrated, it’s not exceptional for women to succeed in these fields – these fields succeed because of exceptional women. 

Latifa Lyles is the director of the Women’s Bureau.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Messily March 25, 2014 at 1:39 am

I always believed : One thing a man can do, a woman can certainly do .
But many times , society is unfair to women .

2 Sandra Gonzalez-Lamb March 25, 2014 at 11:10 am

When I do research for writing STEM grants I continuously see data that shows low female interests in STEM. It’s not just cultural barriers girls and young women face, it is also society’s (especially in the US) stereotype that boys pursue STEM fields and girls do not. I have a couple of ideas to tackle these stereotypes, I just need to find the time and resources. Thank you for the blog.

3 Jill Place March 27, 2014 at 11:51 am

Thank you for the reminder that there ARE women in technology. Throughout my 27 year career with the Defense Information Systems Agency, I have often been the only woman in the room. Recently I was disappointed to review a roster of candidates for a System Administrator position in our organization and not find any women on the list. It made me stop and try to think of ways I could promote IT careers for women locally so that future managers will have a different view.

4 Johanna Ettin March 28, 2014 at 10:13 am

Great reminder and introduction to women I didn’t know about. Next time I talk to my granddaughter I’m going to ask her what kind of scientist she wants to be. At seven she has plenty of time to decide, but it’s never too late to begin.

5 Melody Drnach March 28, 2014 at 10:48 am

Thank you for writing this post and reminding us that it is our responsibility to begin talking to our kindergarten girl friends about science, technology, engineering and math and all of the exciting places those skills can take them. This also reminds me to ask my nephews about the smart, funny and cool girls in their math and science classes!! Keep up the great work!

6 Eileen Gnehm March 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm

I just read your post and feel inspired to give my passion for science another try. I am a late bloomer, non – traditional student and recent graduate with a degree in the social sciences. Everything I want to do involves the hard sciences but I lacked the confidence and resources to take that route early in my educational career. Any thoughts on how I can pursue my life’s dream at the ripe age of 35? Many claim it can’t be done because of my current financial situation. I don’t want to believe that. Thanks for a glimmer of light.

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