Photo: STEM Role Models poster - Medium
Throughout history, there have been women trailblazers who have contributed to and sustained different fields of study, yet have gone without recognition. Thanks to the 2016 American biographical drama Hidden Figures, we have a name for these little-known women pioneers, especially the women of color. Many important women of color who made groundbreaking discoveries in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have largely been ignored in history. These women were experts in their fields and significantly contributed to the success of their societies, organizations, and institutions. They were brilliant and innovative women who defied social constraints and accomplished great things.
Recently, these hidden figures have been revealed and rediscovered, with women of color now being acknowledged for their historical contributions to STEM. Additionally, organizations and universities are now encouraging women of color to pursue STEM careers and degrees, in order to continue to address the gender and racial gap in STEM. There are also a myriad of STEM conferences and events to help these women navigate their STEM careers and build their professional network. Even with these advances, there is plenty of work needed to ensure that there is more space created for women of color in STEM to thrive. However, there are still many women of color who have cultivated spaces for women in STEM, against all odds. We must remember to celebrate them as well.
"I think there is a role for us as women to contribute to the future of technology." Juliana Rotich
Ancient Women of Color in STEM
It is impossible to properly acknowledge all the women of color who have contributed to STEM throughout history, due to the many that have been pushed out historical records. Still, ancient evidence and reports exist that reveal how pivotal many women of color have been in developing technology, medical knowledge, scientific instruments, and engineering skills. For as long as science has existed, women have contributed to innovations and discoveries in those areas throughout history.
Women of color in STEM have contributed to science and medicine from ancient history to the modern-day. As far back as 2300 BCE, a priestess of Ur named En’Hedu’anna studied astronomy and tracked the cycles of the moon. She, like many of the scientists of her time, recorded her findings as poetry. Another ancient woman of color in STEM is Merit Ptah from the third century BCE. She was a physician in ancient Egypt and was the first recorded woman in medicine. These women defied social and cultural repression to make timeless discoveries that advanced the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.
"Through our evolution, we're so specialized for social interaction. So, if you can really design robots that can interact with people, in this very natural, interpersonal way, I think that would be great. You wouldn't have to have people read manuals, in order to operate them." Cynthia Breazeal
Historical Women of Color in STEM in Modern Times
Women of color in STEM have overcome racial and gender biases throughout time to make a name for themselves and contribute to great causes. These women overcame both sexism and racism to hold important titles and positions, contribute to significant discoveries, and push the boundaries of who is included in the history of STEM. There is a long extensive history of women of color innovators, creators, and leaders amongst the many great minds in STEM.
The following are short highlights of incredible women of color pioneers in STEM:
These pioneering women defied societal expectations and staggering obstacles to devote their lives to making the world a better place through their STEM careers.
While women of color in STEM have always faced difficulties throughout the ages, they persisted to overcome inherent biases based on sexism and racism. Their successes are a testament to the invaluable potential of all women of color who enter fields in STEM. Their stories deserve to be known and their determination must be modeled after by any woman of color in STEM. Therefore, it is imperative that we keep on researching and uncovering the countless other women of color in STEM, our hidden figures, who have contributed to this field throughout history; so that they too can be celebrated, and moved from the shadows of history.
Inanna, lady of largest heart, Betty De Shong Meador, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2000. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 75, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 83–106