Throughout history, hidden figures who contributed to and sustained different fields of study have gone without recognition. Many important women of color who made groundbreaking discoveries in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have been ignored by history. These women were experts in their fields and contributed to the success of their organizations and institutions. They were educated women who defied constraints, rose to the top of their organizations, and accomplished great things.
More recently, these hidden figures have been uncovered, and many women of color are now being acknowledged for their contributions to STEM. Organizations are now encouraging women of color to pursue STEM careers so they can continue making advanced discoveries to improve the future of STEM. Annual conferences such as the U.S. Women of Color STEM Conference host events to help them navigate their careers and network. Universities are also encouraging women of color to pursue STEM majors and careers.
Women in STEM History
It would be impossible to properly acknowledge all of the women who have contributed to STEM throughout history due to the suppression of their achievements. However, even though many people have tried to push women and women of color out of the historical record, reports still exist that reveal how pivotal many women have been in developing technology, medical knowledge, scientific instruments, and engineering skills. As long as science, technology, engineering, and math have existed, women have contributed to innovations and discoveries, as shown by this brief overview of a few women of color in STEM throughout history.
Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, women and men built societies and empires using the STEM of their time. As far back as 2300 BCE, a priestess of Ur named En’Hedu’anna studied astronomy and tracked the cycles of the moon. She, like many of the scientists of her time, recorded her findings as poetry. People recited her discoveries in the form of her poetry for 500 years after her death.
Due to limited records, the existence of some women in STEM is debated. One of these women is Merit Ptah from the third century BCE. She was a physician in ancient Egypt, the first recorded woman in medicine. Some contend that while she might not have actually existed, she represents female physicians who were pioneers in medicine and science. Others argue strongly for her existence, pointing to historical records that show she was the chief physician of the pharaoh’s court.
Women of color in STEM have contributed to science and medicine from ancient history to the modern-day — from Al-Ijliya Al-Astrulabi inventing the astrolabe in 10th century Syria to Ālenush Teriān becoming the first Armenian female astronomer and physicist in 21st-century Iran. These women defied social and cultural repression to make timeless discoveries that advanced the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.
Statistics on Women of Color in STEM
While many women have made a difference in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women only held 7% of STEM jobs in 1970. That number doubled to 14% in 1980. According to the National Science Board, women make up 47% of the current workforce but only 28% of the current science and engineering workforce. Of this percentage, women of color comprise about 5%.
Many factors contribute to women making up just about one-fourth of the STEM workforce. According to the Educational Research Center of America, male and female students in K-12 education share the same ability to excel in STEM classes. However, according to the same study, female students demonstrate less confidence in those subjects. If female students are not encouraged to study STEM or are even discouraged throughout their K-12 education, they may continue to lack confidence in those subjects and choose different majors in college.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2015 the percentage of women of color attending higher education institutions who earned STEM degrees was:
- Asian women: 5%
- Black women: 2.9%
- Latinas: 3.8%
Because women, and particularly women of color, have been historically underrepresented in STEM majors at universities as well as in STEM careers, many women in the field feel that they work in biased environments. Scientific American discovered that 45% of women in STEM leave their jobs because of feeling underpaid and underrepresented. Because of this attrition, few women rise to top positions as role models for other women. However, women who are capable of earning STEM degrees are more than capable of working in STEM leadership positions and advancing their careers.
Black Women in STEM
Women of color in STEM have overcome racial and gender biases throughout time to make a name for themselves and contribute to great causes, including many important African American women. These women overcame both sexism and racism to hold important titles and positions, contribute to significant discoveries, and push the boundaries of who is included in the history of STEM. The following are short biographies of important African American women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics:
- Dorothy Lavinia Brown was the first African American female surgeon. She practiced in the Southeastern U.S. during the 1900s.
- Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to become a physician. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College as a Doctor of Medicine in 1864.
- Dr. Marie M. Daly was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry in the U.S. She earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1947 and devoted her life to research and education, teaching and working as a biochemist.
- Mary Jackson was NASA’s first African American female engineer. She became an aeronautical engineer in 1958. She devoted her career as an engineer to creating reports and helping other women get STEM positions at NASA.
- Dr. Shirley Jackson was the second African American woman to graduate with a PhD in physics in the U.S., and the first African American woman to graduate with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She received the National Medal of Science in 2015 during the presidency of Barack Obama.
- Katherine Johnson completed the NASA calculations necessary for several space missions including the 1969 moon landing. She began working as a human computer for Langley Research Center in 1952 and made her way to the flight research division, due to her astounding intelligence and calculations. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Dr. Gladys West was responsible for the mathematics that brought about the invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Her important work at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory helped with outer space discoveries related to planets in the solar system as well as Earth. She programmed the mathematics and calculations for the complex computer that eventually became known as a GPS.
These important African American women defied the odds and the staggering statistics, devoting their lives to making the world a better place through their STEM careers.
Other Famous Women of Color in STEM
While women of color in STEM careers have always faced difficulties, they have persisted to overcome inherent biases based on sexism and racism. Here are short biographies of a few women of color who have contributed to the success of STEM:
- Susan La Flesche was the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree. She attended what is now known as Hampton University before attending and graduating as valedictorian from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889. She became a physician and devoted her life to providing medical care to the Omaha tribe.
- Dr. Ellen Ochoa was the first Latina astronaut to explore outer space. She earned her PhD in electrical engineering and began the three-year process of becoming a NASA astronaut. Her first trip to space took place on the Discovery in 1993, and she has since been to outer space three more times. She has conducted research regarding the ozone layer and is also an inventor.
- Dr. Antonia Novello was the first woman and first Latina to hold the position of surgeon general of the U.S. Dr. Novello earned her Doctorate of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico before serving as surgeon general from 1990 to 1993. Afterward, she was the commissioner of health for New York state and worked as the medical authority for several important organizations.
- Mary G. Ross was the first Native American female aerospace engineer. She worked in Lockheed’s Advanced Development Program and assisted in developing the plans for missions flying by Venus and Mars. She was originally hired as a mathematician in 1942 but ended up training to become the only female engineer.
- In 2015 Tu Youyou became the first woman from the People’s Republic of China to receive the Nobel Prize. She and two other scientists shared the Nobel in physiology or medicine for their groundbreaking work discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, the drugs that treat malaria. She currently works as a pharmaceutical chemist.
Organizations Encouraging Women to Pursue STEM Careers
As the contributions of women of color are gaining recognition, many modern organizations are encouraging women of color to pursue STEM careers. Organizations have begun reaching out to underrepresented girls and women. The following organizations are devoted to helping girls and women explore STEM careers:
- Girlstart offers K-12 programs for girls interested in STEM. Girls from kindergarten through 12th grade can participate in six core STEM programs. The organization pays for over 500 girls to attend the annual Girls in STEM Conference.
- Girls Who Code helps girls learn technological and coding skills to help them in STEM careers. The organization hopes to build America’s biggest pipeline of female engineers.
- National Girls Collaborative Project helps girls interested in STEM careers. It primarily serves as a network by which 36,400 different programs and organizations collaborate to help girls achieve gender equality in STEM careers.
- Women Who Code provides resources and holds events, helping create leadership opportunities where women in STEM can be represented.
- Black Girls Code serves African American, Latina, and Native American girls by cultivating an environment in which they can learn coding skills and computer science. The organization has partnered with large companies such as Google and FedEx to make a difference in the lives of young girls who want to pursue STEM careers.
These are just a few of the many organizations that serve girls and women today. Organizations understand the value of women of color in STEM careers, as their drive and intelligence has led to many revolutionary discoveries over the years. These programs are devoted to cultivating environments where girls and women of color in STEM can feel represented.
Institutions of higher education are encouraging women of color to consider STEM majors by offering special scholarships. Government agencies such as the National Nuclear Security Administration and private companies such as Hewlett-Packard are also targeting scholarships to women of color. Scholars and professionals alike recognize that the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are lacking in diversity and that the country needs more women of color in STEM organizations.
Women of Color STEM Conference
One important event encouraging women of color in STEM careers is the annual U.S. Women of Color STEM Conference. The event has been taking place for 24 years, bringing women of color from different STEM fields together. The conference holds exciting and helpful events every year, including awards ceremonies and networking opportunities. Over 50 women in various STEM careers from government to industry are presented with special awards.
The conference hosts a job fair where women can meet potential employers and network with important industry leaders. Women also have an opportunity to network, creating important and lasting connections with other women of color in STEM. The Women of Color STEM Conference invites technology executives to be keynote speakers and provides workshops where women can build their knowledge and receive specialized training. College students interested in professions in STEM can attend the conference to make important contacts and learn how to navigate their own careers.
Pursue a Career in STEM with a Bachelor’s in Data Science
From ancient history to the present day, women of color have been making important contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Although they have faced many difficulties in navigating their STEM careers, they have continued to make a difference in the world, regardless of the lack of recognition. As many women of color in STEM are beginning to be acknowledged for their accomplishments, they inspire other women of color to pursue careers in STEM as well.
Students interested in a career in STEM can begin by earning an online bachelor’s in data science at Maryville University. The curriculum immerses students in both the theoretical and practical aspects of technology, teaching the tools and techniques of analyzing data — the key skills necessary for working in large corporations, small businesses, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, marketing firms, and more. Maryville University students gain experience researching and analyzing large data sets that can be turned into profitable information. Learn more about how the program can help you pursue a successful career in STEM.