History’s Forgotten Women in STEM


February 11 was the annual day of observation for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day meant to celebrate the achievements women have made in scientific fields. The day was adopted by the United Nations to promote the contributions women have made to science, technology, engineering, and math. Historically, a significant gender gap has been prevalent in all scientific fields, and this gender disparity still exists today. Fortunately, this year the holiday inspired many articles to be published honoring historic women in STEM and women in STEM today

While women have been historically underrepresented in STEM, this is only one part of the issue. Another glaring issue is that many scientific advances made by women have been stolen by men. In 1923, Lise Meitner discovered what is now known as the Auger effect, two years before the same effect was discovered by Pierre Victor Auger. A Jewish woman living in Nazi Germany, she then fled to Stockholm where she met Otto Hahn. Together, they discovered nuclear fission, for which Hahn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944, but Meitner’s contribution was overlooked due to Hahn claiming the credit. She later worked with physicist Rosalind Franklin, a woman who discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1951. Credit for Franklin’s work was stolen by James Watson and Francis Crick, and her role in the discovery went unrecognized for nearly 50 years. In the 1970s, astronomer Vera Rubin discovered dark matter, a fundamental and still highly mysterious physical presence in the universe, but her work was claimed by her coworker Kent Ford. 

The list goes on. Alice Ball discovered the cure for leprosy, but her work was not recognized for nearly 90 years. Ada Lovelace’s work inspired computer programming, but many still dispute her contribution and attempt to discredit her work. Chien-Shiung Wu conducted experiments for the Manhattan Project and the results were credited to someone else. Hollywood starlet Hedy Lemarr invented the Radio Guidance System, which would later become the basis for WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Her invention was patented in 1942, but she did not receive any awards for it until 1997. 

Many people suggest that most scientific contributions are attributed to men simply because women were not allowed to participate, though this is only a partial truth. Women are part of countless groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and they always have been. The issue is that there is a tendency in society to only recognize, teach, and remember the achievements of their male counterparts. While the discoveries and inventions in this article occurred during the 1800s and early-to-mid-1900s, modern women in STEM are still often overlooked and unrecognized in the workplace. Many women still experience patronization and a lack of acknowledgment in the workplace, often at the hands of their male peers. In all scientific fields, it is the responsibility of the employer and its employees – namely those complicit in these behaviors – to eliminate gender disparity.