Famous women in STEM: they did it, and so can you!

Saffron Wildbore

~ 5min read

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~ 5min read

Considering a career in one of the STEM industries, but you don’t know anyone who’s been down this path before? We’re not surprised, the percentage of women in STEM is lower than that of men.

Famous women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are an amazing source of inspiration. And not just because of their achievements.

We all need role models to show us the way. This is especially true for females in male-dominated STEM fields. Stories of legendary women can feel intimidating as well as inspiring, so let’s take a look at the human side of the journey to greatness.

5 famous women in STEM and their surprising backgrounds


1. Katherine Johnson - mathematician who put a man on the moon

Katherine Johnson was known as a human computer. That’s because of her ability to calculate orbits and space trajectories that nobody else could back in the 1950s and 1960s. She was also an African American woman, one of the first to work as a NASA scientist, breaking barriers left right and centre.

She was a smart kid, skipping grades at school. But as NASA reports, this all started with a humble love of numbers: “As a young girl, Katherine loved to count. She counted everything. She would count the number of steps she took to the road.

She counted the steps into church. She even counted the forks and plates when she washed the dishes.” An obsession that grew into her profession.

Your natural curiosity could take you further than you expect!


2. Marie Curie - cancer treatment pioneer and two-time winner of the Nobel Prize

Physicist and chemist Marie Curie is known for discovering radium and polonium. Her work on the theory of radioactivity was fundamental to developing the first ever treatments for cancer.

Marie didn’t have an easy start in life. When she was a child, her parents lost their money and property in the Polish national uprisings of the 19th century, leaving her and her siblings to a life of poverty.

Later on, her world-changing scientific work took place in a tumbledown laboratory that someone called “a cross between a stable and a potato shed”, looking like “a practical joke”.


3. Grace Hopper - trailblazing programmer and US Navy leader

Around 70 years ago, Grace Hopper devised the theory of machine-independent programming languages. In other words, programming languages based on English instead of on ones and zeroes.

This meant computer code could be seen through the lens of business, changing the world of coding forever. Grace’s work grew into the COBOL language (COmmon Business-Oriented Language). This was the most widely-used computer programming language ever, and still used in some of the world’s biggest organisations today.

Grace was no stranger to rejection. Her college application was turned down because she failed the Latin test, bringing her plans to a standstill for a year.

She was also turned down by the US Navy at first because she was judged “too old” (at 34!) and underweight. When she tried again, she was awarded an exemption and accepted onto the training.


4. Ada Lovelace, mother of the modern-day computer algorithm

Ada Lovelace was thinking like a programmer more than a century before computer programming became a thing.

At the start of the 19th century, inventor Charles Babbage revealed plans for his revolutionary calculating machine – the Analytical Engine. But it was Ada who saw the scope of the machine beyond just numbers.

She realised it could analyse patterns, extrapolate scenarios and solve problems for any data point, such as music or words, if it was configured the right way.

This was in spite of Ada’s difficulties growing up. Her father Lord Byron wanted a boy, and when Ada was just a baby, he left the country. She never had a father figure and her mother was distant. Regularly ill, she suffered from migraines and paralyzed for a year after catching measles.

No wonder we have Ada Lovelace Day every 11th of October in honour of women in STEM.


5. Radia Perlman, inventor of the STP internet protocol

In the 1980s, Radia Perlman’s invention unlocked the power of the ethernet. Her spanning-tree protocol (STP) enables lots of computer systems to be connected in a local area network. It’s a set of rules for communicating data to control the flow of information and stop multiple systems from trying to transmit information at once.

When Radia started learning programming, she was the only woman in the class. She felt like the odd one out, saying "I was not a hands-on type person. It never occurred to me to take anything apart. I assumed I'd either get electrocuted, or I'd break something".

She now owns more than 100 patents for her inventions. As a pro communicator as well as an engineer, she even wrote a poem to explain how STP works.

Sometimes it’s good to be different to everyone else in the room.


Slowly but surely, women in STEM are gaining recognition

The successes of female pioneers still tend to fly under the radar more than men’s, but the situation is changing.

Did you catch the recent news about Jess Wade, the physicist who’s lifting up thousands of other women in the STEM field? She’s taken it upon herself to write over 1,750 Wikipedia profiles (and counting) for little-known female scientists to shine a light on their contributions.

“Not only do we not have enough women in science, but we aren’t doing enough to celebrate the ones we have”, she said.


How to get more women into STEM careers

Some research suggests that the number of female students in the United States who are studying computer science has actually gone down, not up, dropping by more than half since 1984. And today in the UK, the representation of women is far from equal, with only 15% of STEM jobs are occupied by female employees.

It’s a complex situation, so there are no simple answers. However, one thing’s for sure: making it more accessible for women to pursue careers in STEM can only be a good thing. That’s what we do at mthree.

Do you have what it takes? We think so!

If you’ve read this far, it’s looking good. Don’t underestimate the value of being genuinely interested in a potential career.

Remember, for every famous woman in STEM, there are hundreds of women who’ve done incredible things to drive humanity forward that didn’t make the headlines. And you don’t have to know everything before you begin.We can help you get a foot in the door. Turn your degree into a career in tech with a leading global employer, with targeted training and ongoing support.

Our pathways include software engineering, production support, cyber security and more. Discover your new career with mthree and apply for a role now.

Read more about Diversity and Inclusion at mthree.

Saffron Wildbore is a Senior Marketing Executive at mthree. She has worked in marketing, specialising in creating content for over 4 years. Saffron focuses on writing tips for graduates, Alumni interviews and more!


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