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

Medical technology students examined blood samples during a hematology class. (1954) by Marquette UniversityNational Women’s History Museum

Why women in STEM?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills have been identified as necessary for a country to remain economically competitive. Many have pointed out that society as a whole improves when diverse teams tackle technological and scientific problems. Yet, women are persistently underrepresented in various STEM fields, where the disparity begins in college classrooms.  However, this disparity also has a historical basis.

Mit Story - '56 (1956-02-11) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection


Women’s underrepresentation in STEM is not a new phenomenon. Historically, women’s formal educational opportunities limited access to the hard sciences and technology.

Many women who were able to acquire formal education were subsequently denied full-time employment in STEM fields. Generations of women struggled to achieve success in what were viewed as male domains.  

Fields Museum (1991-12) by Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

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

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (c. 1816) by Benjamin West, English (born America), 1738 - 1820Philadelphia Museum of Art

Throughout most of history, science was a hobby rather than a career. Curious men studied the natural world, discussing their findings with compatriots in philosophical and scientific societies.

The pleasures of the married state / W. Proud del. et sculp. (1770/1789) by Printed for Robt. Sayer in Fleet Street, & Jno. Smith in CheapsideNational Women’s History Museum

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

Maria Mitchell Video Biography (2015-06) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

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

Rendering of comets by Public domainNational Women’s History Museum

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

[American Indian and African American students at Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. 1900(?) - women studying human respiratory system] (1900) by Johnston, Frances BenjaminNational Women’s History Museum

Interest in education blossomed in 19th-century America. Many women were able to pursue opportunities to learn and seek training for professional careers.

[Group of young women studying plants in normal school, Washington, D.C.] (1899) by Johnston, Frances Benjamin and 1899National Women’s History Museum

During this time, several 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.

Vassar female college, egidius (1862) by Ferd, Mayor & Co. lithograph.National Women’s History Museum

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 College, where Maria Mitchell taught astronomy.

Ellen Swallow Richards Video Biography (2015-06) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

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.

By Sam ShereLIFE Photo Collection

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.

Edith Clarke Video Biography (2015-06-25) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

A pioneer in electrical engineering, 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.

Edith Clarke's patent for a "graphical calculator"National Women’s History Museum

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.

Two women operating ENIAC (1946) by U. S. Army PhotoNational Women’s History Museum

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 Hopper Video Biography (2015-06) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

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.

Grace Hopper and UNIVAC (1960) by UnknownNational Women’s History Museum

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

BIZMAC Computer (1956) by US GovernmentNational Women’s History Museum

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

Mit Story - '56 (1956-02-25) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

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

Title IX (2015-06-30) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

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.

Sally Ride Video Biography (2015-06) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

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.

Sally Ride on the Challenger's mid-deck (1983) by NASANational Women’s History Museum

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, making her the first American woman in space.

STEM Collage (2015-06-25) by National Women's History MuseumNational Women’s History Museum

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

Percentage of Bachelor's degrees conferred to women in the U.S.A., by major (1970-2012) (2014) by Randal S. OlsonNational Women’s History Museum

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 technological fields. They earn only 18% of the Engineering degrees, 20% of Computer Science degrees, and 20% of Physics degrees. Additionally, their representation in these majors has declined over the past 30 years.

Women in Selected STEM Occupations, 1960-2013 (2015) by © The American Association of University Women (AAUW)National Women’s History Museum

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

By Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

Going forward!

Reluctance toward pursuing 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 fields, the business, industry, research, and governmental sectors will be better able to devise and apply the best solutions to today’s problems.

GoldieBlox/Debbie Sterling Video Biography (2014) by NWHMNational Women’s History Museum

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

Directed by Elizabeth L. Maurer

Coordinated by Sydnee Winston

Edited by Kerri Lee Alexander

National Women's History Museum
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Alexandria, VA 22304

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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