Influential Women of Colour in STEM

December 14, 2018

Written by Gabby Chia

Gender bias is a heavy contributor to the issues women face in trying to secure a STEM job. Additionally, racial bias plays an equally trying role for people of colour in western communities. The difficulty is elevated with the combination of the two, which is why Women of Colour (WOC) in STEM fields are 77% more likely than other women to report “having to prove themselves over and over again”. In this study, Williams and colleagues call this dual-bias a doublejeopardy suggesting WOC experience even more difficulty securing STEM jobs than other women. On top of that, 100% of the WOC reported experiencing gender bias, a topic you can read up on in one of our previous blog posts. In this blog post, we are going to highlight some influential women of colour in STEM to show you what can be achieved when great minds from diverse perspectives are added to roles of innovation!

Why do we Need Women in STEM?

According to Quantcast’s 2017 survey, women accounted for 10% of Stack Overflow’s U.S. traffic. Stack Overflow is an online community for developers to share their knowledge and build their careers. This is an improvement from last year’s census that reported only 6.6% of US respondents who identified as women. However, only 2.5% of respondents out of just over 33,000 reported as coming from Black or African descent, and another 28% consisting of Hispanic/Latino/Latina, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American, Pacific Islander, or Indigenous Australian with the remaining 74% being Caucasian without specifying gender. Additionally, an April study from the Kapor Center for Social Impact on why people leave the tech industry revealed that women of color were the most likely to get passed over for a promotion

Source: NASA

Influential Women of Colour in STEM

Although the number of WOC in STEM in 2017 remain relatively low, discrimination was much more prominent in the earlier years of innovation. In spite of frequent setbacks for women at the time, some had the chance to prove their intelligence to their spectators and show young women the possibilities of persistence. One notable figure includes Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who worked at NASA who’s trajectory analysis were instrumental to the success of sending the first American, Alan Shepard, into space in 1961. However, her most notable contribution was her calculations which were also instrumental in sending John Glenn into orbit in 1962. Glenn did not trust computers to handle all the calculations since they were prone to blackouts and errors. Therefore, Glenn asked engineers to have Katherine Johnson run the same numbers through the same equations out by hand, and

“if she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go” – John Glenn

Additionally, she helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module in 1969. The blockbuster film, Hidden Figures, that came out in 2016 was hugely influential in depicting Katherine's contrubutions to NASA.

Source: University of Washington School of Pharmacy

Alice Ball was a chemist from the University of Hawaii who realized the significance of the chaulmoogra tree oil. The oil had been used topically in the past for a range of conditions, but she figured it would be more effective injected. Hearing of her work, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann asked for her help in extracting the active ingredient in the chaulmoogra oil since the oil alone burned when injected and was difficult to ingest. Using this oil she created the first successful treatment for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) which was used up until the 1940s. After her death, the college president, Arthur L. Dean attempted to claim Alice’s work by publishing what he called the “Dean Method”. A feat that was quickly quelled by Dr. Hollmann who responded by publishing an article describing “Ball’s Method”. Her breakthrough was so significant she became the first women and the first African American to be offered a position as an instructor in chemistry at her college. Despite her success, the University of Hawaii did not recognize her work for nearly 99 years. Finally, in 2000, the university dedicated a plaque to her on the campus’s single chaulmoogra tree. 

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal is a virologist, molecular biologist, and the first scientist to clone HIV as well as complete a genetic map of the virus. Her work was influential in identifying HIV as the cause of AIDS. Additionally, the genetic mapping made it possible to develop HIV tests. She led a team of researchers to study what the effects of the Tat protein – found within the viral strain HIV-1 – has on the growth of cells within Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that are frequently found in AIDS patients. She found that the amount of tat protein found within a cell infected by HIV-1 is directly correlated to the amount of KS lesions a patient has. She is noted as one of the most extraordinary women scientists.

Source: American Society of Clinical Oncology

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was a medical doctor who was amongst the first to work with cancerfighting compounds, such as methotrexate, a foundational chemotherapy drug which helps treat breast and skin cancers. Additionally, she discovered a nonsurgical method – using a catheter system – to direct drugs to tumors in specific parts of the body. She also developed the technique of using human tissue culture rather than laboratory mice to test potential drugs on cancer cells. She was the only women amongst her seven colleagues who helped found the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the first women elected president of the New York Cancer Society, and the highest ranked African American women physician of her time.

We celebrate these women for pushing the boundaries of social constructs their culture had placed them in. Although many of these women had to fight for their recognition against those who wish to undermine them, their success can be referenced as inspiring examples of how passion and persistence can change the minds of even the harshest skeptic.

If you want to learn more about race and gender bias, check out one of our previous blog posts on this topic