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.
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.