The STEM field remains a male-dominated arena, with women making up merely 30% of the world’s researchers today. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) suggests that there are significantly fewer women than men in STEM due to perpetuated gender stereotypes that are still prevalent today, as well as the male-dominated cultures that exclude female pioneers from these sectors.
Indeed, studies have found that the STEM gap begins as early as secondary school, with female students facing age-old biases about their abilities in maths and science. Ultimately, this can significantly affect girls’ decisions to pursue a career in the field.
It may also be that there’s a lack of acknowledgement of female STEM scientists who can act as role models for women who want to follow in their footsteps. Unsurprisingly, there are numerous female pioneers in STEM, whose achievements and work have impacted our lives in ways that many of us don’t even know.
For that reason, we’ve compiled of list of 20 remarkable women in STEM who changed the world.
1. Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson was a space scientist and mathematician. She was one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist, and her calculations played a significant role in the launch of the first crewed spaceflight in the US, the 1962 Friendship 7 mission. Her work made way for subsequent NASA space missions.
She also co-authored 26 scientific papers, which solidified her role as a pioneer in space science, mathematics and computing.
Johnson received numerous accolades and awards for her contributions over her lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, a NASA Group Achievement Award in 2016 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.
2. Ada Lovelace
Born in 1815, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was encouraged to focus on her mathematical education by her mother.
Today, she is considered an innovator of scientific computing as well as the first computer programmer. Indeed, Lovelace is responsible for publishing the first algorithm for machines.
She worked closely with Charles Babbage (often dubbed as the ‘father of the computer’), and she is considered to be one of the first people to see computers’ potential beyond merely making calculations.
Despite her short life, her contributions lead to crucial breakthroughs in computer programming.
3. Radia Perlman
Although she disapproves of this title, Radia Perlman is often referred to as ‘mother of the internet’. Indeed, she is responsible for developing the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which played a fundamental role in the creation of today’s internet.
When Radia Perlman went to study at MIT, there were about 50 other women in a class of 1,000 undergrads. There, she pursued an undergraduate and a master’s degree in mathematics before completing her PhD in computer science.
Since then, she has received numerous awards and accolades for her contributions in the field, including her induction into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014 and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016.
4. Rebecca Cole
Rebecca J Cole received her medical degree in 1867; at the time, she was the second African American woman to do so in the US. Her experience with gender and racial discrimination did not stop her from achieving great things within the field, and despite the barriers she had to overcome, she opened the Women’s Directory Center in 1873 which provided medical and legal support to impoverished women and children.
Cole was also a passionate advocate and researcher who challenged biased data which claimed that high mortality rates among African American communities were due to lack of hygiene, contending that white doctors were negligent when treating African American patients.
5. Joan Clarke
A cryptanalyst, numismatist and codebreaker, Joan Clarke played an important role in the Enigma project during World War II, whose objective was to decrypt Nazi ciphers. There, she excelled as a codebreaker and was one of the very few women to be included in the secret project.
Although Clarke earned a first-class honours in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 1939, she was denied a full degree as the University only awarded this to men up until 1948.
Her work during the war led to her being appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1946.
6. Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper was a computer pioneer as well as a naval officer. She and her team were behind the development of several computer languages including, FLOW-MATIC, the first programming language to use English words rather than mathematical characters, and COBOL.
Hopper received over 40 honorary degrees, as well as numerous scholarships, professorships and awards, including the National Medal of Technology as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, which were both awarded to her posthumously.
7. Adriana Ocampo
Born in Colombia and raised in Argentina, Adriana Ocampo’s family moved to the US when she was 14. There, she had the opportunity to volunteer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA while she was still in high school. Later on, Ocampo received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working full time as a researcher at JPL.
As a planetary geologist, she has participated in numerous NASA projects, including the Juno mission to Jupiter and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Among her other list of achievements, Ocampo also discovered the impact crater caused by the asteroid that led to the extinction of 60% of Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs.
8. Irene Au
As a human-computer interaction designer, Irena Au’s work has influenced numerous UX designers who have followed in her footsteps.
During her studies in electrical and computer engineering, Au realised she wanted to create technologies based on people’s needs and that could be used to solve real problems. This resulted in her creating her own study programme in human-computer interaction (HCI).
From Yahoo! to Google and Kholsa Ventures, she has hit multiple milestones during her successful career.
9. Roberta Bondar
Roberta Bondar holds the title of Canada’s first female astronaut. She is also the world’s first astronaut-neurologist.
Her passion for science led to her pursuing a number of studies, and she now holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology and agriculture, a master’s in pathology, a PhD in neuroscience and an MD.
Bondar’s long list of accolades includes 28 honorary degrees, honours including the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the NASA Space Medal, and her induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
10. Ginni Rometty
Before becoming the first female CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty joined the company as a fresh-faced computer science graduate where she initially worked as a systems analyst and engineer.
Rometty gradually climbed up the career ladder, moving through various managerial roles before being named the company’s next president and chief executive.
Writing for CNN, David Goldman wrote that Rometty ‘transformed the company from a systems and services firm into a supercomputing and analytics mega-machine.’ Indeed, her push to get IBM into cloud computing and analytics businesses established significant milestones for the company.
11. Barbara McClintock
Barbara McClintock received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1983 for her pioneering work in cytogenetics and the discovery of the ‘jumping gene’.
Her work played an instrumental role in the research of other scientists in her field as well as the discovery of DNA. Up until today, her publications are still influential contributions to genetic research worldwide.
12. Sally Ride
Sally Ride became the first American woman as well as the youngest astronaut to travel to space in 1983; at the time, she was only 32 years old.
With a bachelor’s degree in English and physics, as well as a master’s and a PhD in astrophysics, she was one of the 35 people out of 8,000 applicants to join NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 in 1978, which was the first year to recruit female candidates.
Ride also founded Sally Ride Science, an NGO dedicated to helping students who want to pursue STEM careers, and she co-authored several children’s books aimed to inspire children to study science.
13. Lydia Villa-Komaroff
Lydia Villa-Komaroff is at the forefront of molecular biology. Indeed, her report that proved bacteria could be produced to create insulin was a defining moment for her career.
When she was a chemistry undergrad, her professor told her women had no place in chemistry, causing her to switch her major to biology. While this led her to find her true calling, it also made the molecular biologist a passionate advocate for diversity in STEM.
She is also one of the founders of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
14. Rachel Carson
A renowned marine biologist, environmentalist and writer, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring is often accredited as the work that sparked today’s environmental movement.
In her works, Carson questioned the governmental and scientific assumptions that humans should dominate nature and posed critical questions which scrutinised humans’ right to control and destroy nature and its inhabitants.
Her work had a significant impact on an entire generation of environmental activists, acting as the catalyst to a movement that is still prevalent today.
15. Ellen Ochoa
Following the completion of her doctorate, Ellen Ochoa worked as an engineer and inventor for NASA, where she developed numerous systems and methods that were awarded patents.
In 1993, she made history as the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and completed four missions in total throughout her career as an astronaut.
The next chapter in her career saw Ochoa serving as the deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center before being promoted to director.
16. Mollie Orshansky
As a statistician and economist, Mollie Orshansky worked as a social science research analyst in the Office of Research and Statistics in the US. There, she conducted studies that identified patterns across family welfare and income. This led her to develop the official guidelines which, to this day, are used by the US government to assess how public policies can impact the prosperity of different communities.
17. Edith Clarke
Edith Clarke achieved had a lot of firsts as a female engineer: she was the first woman to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer in the US, the first female professor of electrical engineering in America, the first female engineer to be recognised by Tau Beta Pi and the first woman to be named a Fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Among other impressive achievements, Clarke invented the Clarke calculator and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.
18. Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin had a pivotal part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Despite her contributions to the scientific community, she is often overlooked, receiving little credit for her work. In fact, it was only after her death that her role in the discovery was acknowledged.
Despite her battle with cancer, Franklin continued her research into the structure of tobacco mosaic virus, publishing a number of papers before her untimely demise in 1958.
19. Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison has achieved a lot over the years. An engineer, physician and former NASA astronaut, she holds degrees in chemical engineering, African and African American studies, and medicine.
Before joining NASA and becoming the first black woman in space in 1992, she worked as a doctor for the Peace Corps. She is also the founder of a technology research company, the creator of an NGO for education and the author of several children’s books.
Her achievements have been recognised with numerous honorary doctorates, while she has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame as well as the International Space Hall of Fame.
20. Lillian Moller Gilbreth
A psychologist and industrial engineer, Lillian Moller Gilbreth was a trailblazer in her field, using organisational psychology to consult corporations and help them make their processes more efficient.
Gilbreth is considered to be the first industrial psychologist as well as the first female engineer to earn a doctorate. She was also the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1965. All these while also raising 12 children!
Despite the adversities and limitations these women had to face during their time, some of which are unfortunately still prevalent today, they paved the way for other aspiring scientists and researchers who want to follow in their footsteps.
If you dream of a career in STEM, then take a page out of the book of these inspiring role models and make it happen!
Which of these stories inspired you the most? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!