Throughout history, hidden figures — women of color who contributed to and sustained different fields of study — have gone without recognition.
Many important women of color made groundbreaking discoveries in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These women were experts in their fields and contributed to the success of their organizations and institutions. They were educated professionals who defied constraints, rose to the top of their organizations, and accomplished great things.
In recent years, their stories have been uncovered, and many women of color are now being acknowledged for their contributions to STEM to the point where organizations are encouraging women of color to pursue STEM careers. Annual events such as the U.S. Women of Color STEM Conference help them navigate their careers and find networking opportunities. 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 since their achievements have often been ignored or suppressed. However, even though women and women of color have often fallen out of the historical record, resources 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 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 scientists of her time, recorded her findings as poetry. People recited her poetry for 500 years after her death.
The existence of some women in STEM is debated because of flawed historical recordkeeping. One of these women is Merit Ptah, who worked in the third century BCE. She was a physician in ancient Egypt and the first recorded woman in medicine. Some contend that she may not have actually existed, but that 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 great contributions to various STEM fields, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers today.
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 about only one-quarter 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 struggle against the perception of working in a biased environment. Scientific American discovered that 45% of women in STEM leave their jobs because they feel underpaid and underrepresented.
Because of this attrition, few women rise to top positions as role models for other women. However, women who can earn 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 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 Doctor 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 fly-by missions to Venus and Mars. She was originally hired as a mathematician in 1942 prior to transitioning to a career in engineering.
- 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 gain recognition, many modern organizations are encouraging women of color to pursue STEM careers. The following organizations are devoted to helping girls and women explore careers in science, technology, engineering, or math:
- 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 more than 500 girls to attend the annual Girls in STEM Conference.
- Girls Who Code helps girls learn technological and coding skills to serve as the foundation for future STEM careers. The organization hopes to build America’s biggest pipeline of female engineers.
- The National Girls Collaborative Project 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 several corporations 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. These organizations understand the value of women of color in STEM careers. 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 providing scholarships to women of color. Scholars and professionals alike recognize that the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are lacking in diversity and 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. Started in 1995, the conference brings women of color from different STEM fields together, and holds exciting and helpful events every year, including awards ceremonies and networking opportunities. More than 50 women in various STEM careers from government and industry are presented with special awards.
The conference hosts a career fair where women can meet potential employers and network with important industry leaders, creating important and lasting connections with other women of color in STEM. The Women of Color STEM Conference invites technology executives to serve as 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 through 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, with or without recognition. As many women of color in STEM are finally being acknowledged for their accomplishments, they inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
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 data analysis — 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 provide key insight for organizations of all types. Learn more about how the program can help you pursue a successful career in STEM.