Women in STEM—A Road Paved With the Firsts of Many Determined Women
As more women find their way into STEM-related fields, they have these women to thank for helping lay the foundation for future generations.
Since its introduction in 2001, the push for more diversity and inclusivity within both STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) educational and occupational fields has been a key aspect. For women specifically, the road toward a STEM education or job hasn’t always been smooth.
As we wrap up Women's History Month, in this article, we’ll look at some interesting and influential women who became cornerstones in spurring women into STEM.
Nichelle Nichols Goes “Where No [Wo]Man Has Gone Before”
Going where no man has gone before was a common phrase for Nichelle Nichols to hear, thanks to her role as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek.
Photo of Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek. Image used courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia Commons
Not only did Nichols play a character in space, but she also broke barriers and advocated for women and minorities to go to space and STEM—as well as STEAM, which adds the “A” for art. Nichols understood the impact she could have on her fan base, which included figures such as Martin Luther King), as well as other young females and those of ethnic backgrounds.
Nichelle Nichols (center) inside the SOFIA aircraft. Image used courtesy of NASA
Throughout her lifetime, she made sure to do everything she could to inspire and help make space a frontier where everyone was welcome and capable of reaching.
Katherine Johnson Helped the US Get to and Land on the Moon
Some may have heard about Katherine Johnson (born 1918) thanks to the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Just as she was depicted in the biopic, Johnson was a pivotal figure in helping the US get to and land on the moon.
As with many future engineers or those entering STEM-related fields, a passion for learning is usually necessary. Johnson had that in spades, specifically when it was mathematics. Growing up, it was very apparent that Johnson loved to count, which aided her in her studies and helped her reach high school by the age of 10.
She eventually graduated at 18 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics (and French) from West Virginia State College. After graduating, she became a teacher off and on until 1953, when she started working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)—the predecessor of NASA.
Katherine Johnson at her desk while working at NASA. Image used courtesy of Katherine Johnson and the Space Center Houston
At the NACA, Johnson, with her inquisitive personality and need for knowledge, started asserting herself as a leader and valuable team member. She went on to play a pivotal role in calculating the trajectories for the US’ first space trip (Alan Shepherd’s 1961 mission), as well as the 1969 moon landing. Though these were just two key instances of the impact she made, she spent her lifetime learning, teaching, and pushing NACA further.
After retiring, she continued to speak to younger generations by telling them her story and encouraging women and minorities to pursue an education in STEM. Her story helped—and continues to inspire—many to reach for their dreams and enter into a STEM-based career.
EE Gertrude Entwisle Broke Barriers and Designed DC Motors
While the first two historical figures discussed in this article were not electrical engineers, their impact on spurring women into STEM-related fields was vital. This next woman, however, was an EE, and she accomplished many firsts when it came to being a woman in a male-dominated field.
Gertrude Entwisle, born in 1892, had originally studied physics at Manchester University. This was until, during her second year, the school opened up the electrical engineering course for females. From that moment on, she made her way through her education and career, often being the only woman around—and racking up many firsts as a result.
All in all, she was the first woman to:
- Be admitted to the technical staff of British Westinghouse (now Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co.).
- Become a member of the Society of Technical Engineers (STE).
- Become the first student, graduate, and associate member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), which eventually became the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
- Attend engineering lectures at Manchester University.
A picture of Gertrude Entwisle working on a motor she designed. Image used courtesy of IET Archives
Overall, throughout her life, Entwisle worked tirelessly to carve out her place and open the door for future generations to enter the field of electrical engineering.
Erna Hamburger—The First Female Full Professor at EPFL
Another woman who stood out in history is Erna Hamburger. Born in Belgium in 1911, her father was an electrical engineer, which helped solidify her future endeavors. During her education, she often was the only girl among the boys, as she often found her interests aligning with more male-dominated areas. Eventually, she entered the University of Lausanne’s (UNILs) School of Engineering and graduated in 1933 with her EE and a doctorate in 1937.
Photo of Erna Hamburger. Image used courtesy of Erna Hamburger and EPFL
Within the world of electrical engineering, she was the first woman to become a full professor at EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne). This accomplishment was pivotal in showing that a woman could become a full professor within a more technical field of study.
To keep the momentum going, she, throughout her life, continued to invest her time and efforts in promoting females to become interested in technology and more academic-based careers. She also spent a great deal of time working with international commissions to establish basic electrical standards.
Lastly, an award was created in 2006 in her honor. The Erna Hamburger Award is given through the EPFL-WISH Foundation (Women In Science and Humanities). This award aims to continue Hamburger’s goals to motivate women to get involved in more science- and technology-based careers and education.
Florence McKenzie: Australia’s First Female EE and Ham Radio Operator
Born September 28th, 1890, in Melbourne, Australia, Florence Violet McKenzie showed an early interest in electricity, which started from her playing with wiring in her home. Sparked (hopefully not literally) by her interest, she decided to explore getting an education in electrical engineering.
However, there was one major barrier standing in her way. For the school she was interested in to allow her admittance, it was required that she work in the trade, and thus, she needed an apprenticeship. As a workaround, she started her own electrical contracting business and wireless shop (plus a magazine called Wireless Weekly) and apprenticed herself. Shortly after, she graduated with an EE degree from Sydney Technical College and was quite possibly the first woman to do so.
During and after her schooling, her shop and magazine flourished, and she became known as Australia’s first female “ham” radio operator.
Photo of Florence McKenzie. Image used courtesy of Her Place Woman’s Museum Australia
Beyond these accomplishments, McKenzie, as WWII was approaching, created the school called the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) in 1939, which eventually laid the foundation for the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). Through her school, thousands of men and women were trained in morse code, and all of it was free.
All in all, McKenzie’s life was spent pushing the boundaries of what and where women could work. With her drive and determination, women were accepted into new areas, previously not allowed.
Interested in other famous historical women, especially those in electrical engineering-based fields? Read on in the articles down below.