Written Saturday 7th March 2020

International Women’s Day: Celebrating 6 Inspirational Women in STEM

Greta Thunberg

Women’s roles in the workplace have significantly progressed over the past 100 years, but STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries remain heavily male-dominated. Just 11% of STEM roles – positions such as engineers, scientists, and computer programmers – are held by women.

There are numerous reasons behind this lack of diversity. Much rests on our perception; science and maths continue to be seen as traditionally male subjects at school, while girls tend to excel at humanity subjects like English and history. In 2017-8, 19% of engineering and technology university students in the UK. This makes STEM industries statistically more likely to be male-dominated – and companies with wholly male boards and leadership teams are unlikely to make for female-friendly workplaces.

Then there’s the old saying: ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. With fewer women qualified for and therefore occupying STEM roles, there are fewer inspirational figures for girls and young women to look up to. We all know of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking; the female equivalents may not spring to mind so quickly. 

So, in the spirit of giving visibility to those paving the way for women in STEM – and giving them the recognition they deserve – here are 6 inspirational figures we’ll be celebrating this International Women’s Day (and every other day of the year).

Ada Lovelace

The daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (better known as Ada Lovelace) is considered the first computer programmer.

Unusually for the time, Ada was taught mathematics and science and went on to meet ‘the father of the computer’ Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor. She subsequently studied advanced mathematics and translated an article on Babbage’s analytical engine, adding so many of her own notes that it became three times longer than the original version.

Ada Lovelace’s contributions to computer science were discovered long after her death. Her notes were republished in 1953 and she has since been posthumously honoured for her work. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named a newly developed computer language “Ada” in her honour.

Marie Curie

The only woman in history to win two Nobel Prizes, Marie Curie’s work on radioactivity was crucial to developing x-rays in surgery. Her contributions weren’t confined to lab work, either. During World War I, Curie drove ambulances with x-ray equipment and trained medical professionals on how to use it in her role as head of radiological service at the International Red Cross. 

With her husband Pierre, Curie discovered two new chemical elements: polonium and radium. 

Despite her astonishing contributions to science, Curie’s gender meant she faced discrimination and never received significant financial benefits from her work. She died in 1934 as a result of exposure to high-energy radiation from her research – the ultimate sacrifice. 

Joan Clarke

Born in 1917, Joan Clarke saved countless lives during World War 2 by helping to crack German Enigma ciphers at Bletchley Park. She decoded ciphers relating to U-boats hunting down Allied ships carrying troops and supplies from the US to Europe – a task said to be one of the most high-pressure jobs at Bletchley.

Despite getting a double first in mathematics at Cambridge, Clarke was denied a full degree as the university didn’t award them to women at the time, and was paid less than her male counterparts. 

Clarke was appointed MBE in 1947, but the secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park and her deeply private life means the full extent of Clarke’s achievements remain largely unknown. Some 20 years after her death, Clarke’s story was brought to life on the big screen in The Imitation Game.

Katherine Johnson

You may already be slightly familiar with Johnson’s remarkable story thanks to the 2016 Oscar-nominated feature film based on her life, Hidden Figures.

A talented mathematician, in 1952 Johnson applied to NASA after learning they were hiring African-American women to work as “human computers”. After securing a role there, she worked her way into the flight division research department; the team responsible for getting people into space. She subsequently played crucial roles in both the historic 1969 Apollo 11 trip to the moon and ensuring the safe return of Apollo 13 in 1970.

In 2015, President Obama awarded 97 year old Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

While Johnson’s story is incredible, her advice to those wanting to follow in her footsteps is simple: “Like what you do and then you will do your best.”

Jacqueline de Rojas 

President of techUK and a non-executive director on the boards of numerous high profile businesses, Jacqueline de Rojas has received an impressive string of awards (a CBE among them, no less) for her outstanding contributions to cultural diversity in tech. De Rojas is paving the way for girls; she’s an ambassador for numerous organisations supporting women in STEM, including Girl Guides, where she advised in 2018 on their new STEM badge. 

Having been fortunate enough to meet and interview Jacqueline ourselves, we know she’s a force to be reckoned with and a true inspiration to anyone pursuing a career in STEM fields.

Greta Thunberg

Greta may not be directly working in a STEM career (yet), but her committed activism against climate change has marked her out as a remarkable young woman. The 17 year old’s campaigning has received international recognition and she is unafraid to speak the truth: last year she told world leaders at the UN that their reliance on young people to fix climate change have “stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. We will be watching you.”

In 2018, Greta inspired a viral school strike #FridaysForFuture that involved more than 20,000 students around the world taking part in countries including Australia, the UK, Belgium, the US and Japan.

Having already been named Time’s Person of the Year in 2019, there’s no doubting that Greta will continue to achieve remarkable things and inspire millions around the world.

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