Breaking In: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics

National Women’s History Museum

Why Women in STEM?
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills have been identified as necessary to remain economically competitive as a country, and many have pointed out that all of society benefits when diverse teams tackle technological and scientific problems. Yet, women are persistently underrepresented in many STEM fields, where the disparity begins in college classrooms.  And, it has a historical basis.
Women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields is not a recent phenomenon. Historically, women’s formal educational opportunities limited access to the hard sciences and technology fields. Many women who were able to acquire formal education were subsequently denied employment or full employment in these areas. Generations of women struggled to achieve success in what were viewed as male domains.  

It is only recently that cultural expectations shifted towards envisioning women and girls in science and technology fields.

Through most of history, science was an avocation rather than a profession. Curious men studied the natural world, discussing their findings with compatriots in philosophical and scientific societies.

Cultural norms that understood women and men as occupying separate spheres excluded women from scientific communities.

Maria Mitchell was America’s first professional female astronomer. On October 1, 1847, at the age of 29, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet, becoming the first American to do so.

For her achievements Mitchell became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850.

Interest in education blossomed in 19th-century America. Women equally embraced opportunities to learn and to seek training for professional careers.

During this time, dozens of women’s colleges were established. The Seven Sisters--Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley--were all founded between 1837 and 1889.

Co-educational institutions frequently barred women from science and technical majors or enrolled very small numbers of exceptional women. The Seven Sisters each developed science specialties, like Vassar, where Maria Mitchell taught astronomy.

Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1873. She completed the requirements for a Master's degree but the Institute refused to grant it to her.

Losing Ground?
While nearly 30% of women earning doctorates received degrees in science fields up until 1900, waning employment opportunities for women scientists in the twentieth century led to the further decline in women’s enrollment in those majors.

Pioneering electrical engineer Edith Clarke earned a great many “firsts” in the field of STEM including becoming the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the U.S.

Clarke was among a very few exceptional women who were able to find success at the highest levels in technical fields. She was the first woman inducted into the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

World War II created a need for smart problem-solvers, opening doors to women interested in math and technology careers. These women programmed computers for the top secret Manhattan Project.

Admiral Grace Murray Hopper invented the first computer compiler, a program that translates written instructions into codes that computers read directly. This led her to co-develop COBOL, an early standardized computer language.

Hopper predicted that computers would one day be small enough to fit on a desk, and everybody would use them in their everyday lives.

During and following the War, computer programming became known as a “woman’s” profession, analogous to clerical work.

Life magazine profiled MIT’s class of 1956 as the most sought after in America, whose members were needed to address the scientist gap with the Soviet Union. There were 12 women in a class of 759. Can you find them?

The passage of Title IX opened the door to new educational opportunities for women. The law made it illegal to bar women from federally funded schools or programs of study.

Dr. Sally Ride was among the first women to benefit from Title IX in educational opportunities. She was one of only 5 women selected for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) class of '78.

On June 18, 1983 the space shuttle Challenger was launched for the six-day mission STS-7. Dr. Ride was one of the five crew members aboard, becoming the first American woman in space.

Dr. Ride's achievements in science inspired countless other women to pursue careers in STEM and to help shape the field.

Almost 21 million students attended American colleges and universities in fall 2014. Women made up the majority of students, with about 12 million females matriculating, compared to 9 million males. Though women comprise almost 60% of undergraduates, they tend not to major in science and technical fields. They earn only 18% of the Engineering degrees, 20% of Computer Science degrees, and 20% of Physics degrees. Interestingly, their representation in these majors has declined over the past 30 years.

Women’s percentage of college majors parallels their representation in the scientific and technical workforce.

Going Forward
Disinclination toward STEM majors and careers is not innate. A recent survey by the Girl Scouts Research Institute found that nearly three-quarters of girls say they are “somewhat” or “very” interested in STEM subjects. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that high school girls take more STEM classes than boys.  A wealth of initiatives are underway to further increase girls’ interest and representation in these fields. Professional women are reaching back to mentor the women following in their trail-blazing footsteps. As more women enter and remain in STEM, business, industry, research, and government will be better able to devise and apply the best solutions to today’s problems.

GoldieBlox, an award-winning toy company founded by engineer and entrepreneur Debbie Sterling, is revolutionizing playtime for girls by introducing them to engineering at a young age.

Credits: Story

Elizabeth L. Maurer - Director of Program

Sydnee Winston - Project Coordinator

National Women's History Museum
205 S. Whiting St., Suite 254
Alexandria, VA 22304

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