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Society of Women Engineers

What the History of Successful Women in STEM Fields Can Teach Us

The history of women in science and engineering is filled with examples of women finding surprising and creative ways of overcoming obstacles.

Published On: September 2015

Rachel Swaby is a journalist and author of the book Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-And the World, which came out in April. Her work has appeared in Wired, Runner’s World, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Tested.com. She’s spoken about women in STEM fields in New York, California, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, and in at M.I.T.

The history of women in science and engineering is filled with examples of women finding surprising and creative ways of overcoming obstacles. In the past, these work-arounds were launched in the face of overt discrimination. Women are no longer banished to the basement of research institutions or barred from faculty activities (as happened to Lise Meitner and Alice Hamilton respectively). Today the forces working against women in the workplace are a subtler, harder to spot kind…well usually. That whole Tim Hunt women cry and fall in love with you thing was clearly terrible, as was the suggestion from a peer reviewer that a male author might bolster a research paper with women authors. Whatever the discriminatory currents fighting a fair and equal workforce, the amazing women who broke through barriers in the last few centuries can tell us some pretty smart things about how to succeed.

One that comes up over and over again is space-specifically how carving out spaces that work for us can lead to our best work. The British geneticist and IVF pioneer Anne McClaren made one of her most significant discoveries after a breakfast chat with scientists in her building. She was a clear and exceedingly sharp speaker and thinker. By discussing the latest research with colleagues every morning, she found an opening that led her to a major IVF breakthrough. After she moved from London to the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh, McLaren made these discussions a lunchtime ritual.

At the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, the Nobel Prize winning biochemist Gerty Cori set up similar regular noontime discussions. This type of forum was ideal for both scientists. The place they created suited their curiosity and was a great stage for their science and leadership.

Starker but still successful examples exist. After she was refused a vacant office (and a salary), the physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer set up a workspace in an attic at Johns Hopkins University. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow set up a working nuclear physics lab space in a janitor’s closet in the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital so she could get to work on the projects that most excited her. In other words, these scientists created what the Author Virginia Woolf would call this a room of one’s own. In the history of women in STEM fields, we see these productive spaces carved out repeatedly.

In these stories of the scientists and engineers that came before us, we find so many trailblazing strategies for navigating career advancement, leadership, and autonomy. Some are zanier than others (Alice Hamilton outwitted drug dealers by putting cocaine in her eye), but many still hold up. At my webinar on August 18th, we’ll dive deeper into the fascinating history of women in STEM-including how the computer programmer Grace Hopper taught programmers to “think different” long before Apple coined the phrase, and how the engineer Yvonne Brill figured out a better way to keep satellites in orbit-and discuss the qualities that appeared again and again in the scientists that succeeded. These examples show not only how we can operate within a rigid system, but also how to advance spaces that work better for women-and therefore promote a diversity of research, ideas, and spaces in all STEM fields.

Sponsored by:
Brown – Executive Master