History of Women in STEM Fields

STEM concept 2

While the majority of positions in modern research laboratories, software companies, and engineering firms are filled by men, women have made many notable contributions to advances in science, technology, engineering, and math, dating back more than a century. Without the work of women who excelled in fields ranging from botany to computer science, many of today’s careers and technologies would not exist.

Ana Roqué de Duprey

Born in 1853 in Puerto Rico, Ana Roqué de Duprey started a school when she was just 13. She wrote a geography textbook to use as a teaching tool, which the Puerto Rican Department of Education adopted for widespread use. Her passions were education and astronomy, and she founded several schools for girls. She also was a founder of the College of Mayagüez, which today is known as the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Roqué was a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico. She also wrote Botany of the Antilles, an extensive overview of Caribbean flora.

Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Moller Gilbreth is perhaps best known as the mother of 12 children from the book and movies Cheaper by the Dozen. However, Gilbreth was also a turn-of-the-century psychologist and industrial engineer who was an expert in the fields of organizational psychology and efficiency. She worked as a management consultant, applying her expertise and theories to major corporations. She was also Purdue University’s first female engineering professor. She was also the first woman inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

  • Lillian Gilbreth, Pioneering Inventor: With her husband Frank, Gilbreth invented time and motion study, which consisted of watching workers perform tasks and then analyzing these movements so that the process could be made more efficient, safer, and more satisfying to the worker.
  • Lillian Moller Gilbreth: This biography of Gilbreth addresses her struggles in obtaining a college education along with other issues as she broke glass ceilings imposed by her gender.
  • The Management Theory of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth considered it key to reduce the number of motions required for a task, closely study the efficiency of motions, and increase both efficiency and worker satisfaction.

Ruth Rogan Benerito

An American chemist who pioneered bioproducts, Ruth Rogan Benerito is most frequently honored as the person who saved the American cotton industry after World War II. She invented a process to produce cotton fabrics that were wrinkle-, stain-, and flame-resistant. Benerito also discovered how to remove fats from seeds and use these fats in intravenous feeding of hospital patients. Along with teaching college courses, Benerito also worked for the USDA before receiving the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her work as an educator and scientist.

Edith Clarke

Edith Clarke initially worked as a computer. At the time, computers were people who did complicated calculations by hand, before the invention of electric computers and calculators. Clarke was also an electrical engineer at the turn of the 20th century whose research improved the efficiency and stability of power distribution. It was difficult for her to find work in her field due to her gender. However, in 1922, she became the first employed professional female electrical engineer in the United States. The National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted Clarke in 2015.

Mary Engle Pennington

Growing up during a time when college attendance was rare for women, Mary Engle Pennington obtained a Ph.D. and worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a bacteriological chemist. During her tenure at the USDA, Pennington was appointed chief of the Food Research Laboratory. In that position, Pennington pioneered many advances in the safe handling of food. The accepted standards of food refrigeration stem from Pennington’s work.

Ellen Ochoa

When the space shuttle Discovery took flight in 1993, Dr. Ellen Ochoa made history as the first Hispanic woman to go into space. She has since completed three other missions and logged almost 1,000 hours in space. Before becoming an astronaut, she worked as an inventor and research engineer. NASA appointed her the director of the Johnson Space Center in 2013; she was the first Hispanic person and second woman to hold this post.

Calutron Girls

The Manhattan Project created the first nuclear bombs, which the United States used against Japan in World War II. One of the most difficult parts of the project was isolating the needed enriched uranium. Clinton Engineer Works decided to focus on hiring young women who had recently graduated from high school to operate the calutrons, which were used to isolate uranium isotopes. Although the women weren’t told why they were performing these tasks, they were better at producing uranium than the trained male scientists who worked alongside them.

Grace Hopper

Before Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, computer languages were written in mathematical notation. She led the development of human-readable coding languages in English, including COBOL, which is still used today. Her career spanned from the 1930s until the 1980s, and during that time, her work was on the cutting edge of the development of computer coding. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is held annually in her honor.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, an African-American space scientist and mathematician, made enormous contributions to America’s aeronautics and space programs. She played a huge role in the space race, calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, as well as for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace is widely credited as the first computer programmer. Lovelace wrote a program for the Analytical Engine proposed by Charles Babbage. She would die in 1852, before the machine could be built, but her work and the poetic way she approached science have inspired generations of young female scientists.

Sally Ride

The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, who started her historic trip on June 18, 1983. She retired after her second space flight, deciding to focus on educating young people in science. Before her death in 2012, Ride founded Sally Ride Science in 2001, which provides support for students interested in STEM.

The Mercury 13

A group of women were recruited to be the first female astronaut trainees in the early 1960s. Although the privately funded program wasn’t officially part of NASA’s space training program, the 13 women completed the same screenings as the men selected for the Mercury program. NASA would not send any of them into space, but they opened the door for astronauts like Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.