Earth to Society: Women Scientists Exist!!!

STEM. It is a sector, like many other sectors, where women are underrepresented and flat out ignored. As a female electrical engineer, I have faced my fair share of being overlooked at school. I have seen surprised faces of my teachers when I get good (and sometimes the best) grades on exams and I have been ignored during defenses for projects that I worked so hard on. In short, my mostly male teachers have often made me feel like I was invisible. One teacher even had the audacity to ask me if I resolved the questions he gave by myself. Apparently, he thought I was copying off the guy that sat next to me, so he was surprised when I answered the questions he gave early.

You see, the bias has been here for a long time, but it’s not dying-off as quickly as it should. One day, when I was tutoring my two favorite students on the planet, I encountered an incident that I would like to share. My 9-year-old student and her 13-year-old brother are sitting by my side. She says, “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor.” Before I can reply, her innocent brother says, “You cannot be a doctor; you are a woman. You are going to be a nurse.” At first, I was angry…but then I was sad and disappointed. When I asked him why he said that, he told me he had never seen a woman doctor so he assumed there are none. He was not being sexist, nor did he have an intention to harm his sister. He was simply reflecting what he did, or in this case did not see. I was able to explain to him women doctors and scientists exist (exhibit A being me) and to tell her she can be anything she wants to be.

Why aren’t there more women scientists?
Well, for starters the STEM world is not exactly accepting women with open arms. Like many other male-dominated sectors, STEM poses its own biases and discrimination against women. But that is not the end of the story. Of the few women scientists that do exist, we see very little of them on media or in educational material. Our textbooks are filled with male innovators and scientists, but the only female scientist I remember being taught about in school is Marie Curie. I am not saying her work was not impressive; she is a very smart and admirable woman. But, there were and still are so many women that have similar stories. Let’s not forget the Ethiopian women scientists that are spearheading valuable research, like Dr. Segenet Kelemu and Dr. Sossina Haile.

When people steal your story
For many women scientists, the problem is not about having a bright idea; it’s about keeping that idea safe—from theft. Many women scientist have had their ideas taken by their supervisors and colleagues who claim ownership and take all the credit. Let’s talk about some of the women scientists who have been overlooked by the human story.

Ada Lovelace: Ada is arguably (argued mostly by men) the first computer programmer. She is believed to have written the first computer algorithm before modern computers were invented.

Janaki Ammal: Janaki is India’s first woman plant scientist. She developed several hybrid species that are still grown today.
Chien-Shiung Wu: Wu played a major role in developing a theory with regard to radioactive decay. She is also known for the Wu experiment, which was a crucial theory in physics. In fact, the theory led to a Nobel Prize awarded to her male colleagues while her critical role was overlooked.

Katherine Johnson: Katherine is a mathematician whose calculations as a NASA employee were critical to sending the first Americans into space. Her story, along with the many other African American women scientists who were working at NASA at the time, was featured in the movie Hidden Figures.

Rosalind Franklin: Rosalind discovered the double helix structure of DNA. She passed away four years before her male colleagues were awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1962, although many doubt she would have gotten it even if she was alive.

Vera Rubin: Vera discovered the existence of dark matter, the strange material that holds our universe together. Even though her work was extremely important, she did not receive any sort of recognition for it.

What is holding us back now?
How funny and strange is it that our country’s Minster of Health is a woman doctor, yet a 13-year-old boy has never seen a woman doctor before? It is not because this boy or his family is ignorant. In fact, they are some of the most informed people I know. But Dr. Lia did not start popping up on screens until the pandemic hit. And there are definitely not many women scientists and doctors in the books and movies kids are exposed to. So how can I blame him? Instead, I blame us…society. This is one of many ways we are failing our kids.

I am not asking we create fictional women scientists. I am asking we tell the stories of those that do exist—like Dr. Timnit Gebru, technical co-lead of Ethical AI team at Google and Dr. Rediet Abebe, a Harvard research fellow working on algorithms and AI with a focus on equity and justice concerns. There are so many women scientists, locally and globally, who have done so much work and deserve the recognition. The overlooking extends beyond scientists; women heroines and queens are also overlooked. In short, our history is almost purely HIS-story with breadcrumbs thrown here and there for few women figures. As a result, little girls are getting their lights put out and little boys are growing unaware of reality. Think about that.

Written by: Hellina Hailu