As a Head of the only girls’ school in Durham, an institution that prides itself on its excellence in promoting STEM and STEAM- which includes the arts as well as the sciences- I feel conflicted about the day in itself. I am a massive supporter and advocate, whilst at the same time, I am sad that this it is still necessary to commemorate such a day because it indicative that the gender gap in science and technology still exists across the globe, and, to a lesser extent, even in the UK.
I have written before about the androcentric view of history that I received at school back in the 1980s and it was the same with science; the celebration of female scientists in school only stretched to a project on Marie Curie in primary school. Nowadays, thankfully, students learn about the women of Bletchley Park, whose decoding efforts helped break the Enigma Code, and females such as the brilliant Katherine Johnson, an American woman of colour who worked for NASA on the moon landings, and who become immortalised in the wonderful film Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson’s career at NASA saw her help launch the Apollo Lunar Module, the Space Shuttle and the Landsat satellite. She suffered not just blatant misogyny in her time, but also endemic racism, as is painfully depicted in the film.
Another favourite of mine is a woman whose contribution to science and technology was overshadowed for decades, or even denied, because of her fame as a Hollywood star of the Golden Age. Hedwig Kiesler, known as Hedy Lamarr, was born in Vienna in 1914 to a Jewish family who emigrated to the US before World War Two. By the start of the war, she was an established Hollywood actress, whose vast intellect and scientific genius were overlooked because she was pigeon-holed by her often-risqué roles. In 1940, she met the composer George Antheil, who became her scientific collaborator on a number of projects that sought to aid the Allied war efforts, including patenting a ‘Secret Communication System’ that was designed to stop the Nazis intercepting Allied radio transmissions. It was an ingenious idea that used a system of ‘frequency hopping,’ but it lacked military support at the time and she was given neither money nor recognition for this invention.
However, in later years, she and Antheil were recognised for their brilliance and they were awarded the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Company in 1997. Furthermore, in 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Wall of Fame because, by then, it was acknowledged that their system was actually a precursor to the wireless technology we all take for granted today, leading her to be dubbed the ‘mother’ of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS.
Pioneering women such as Katherine Johnson and Hedy Lamarr had a very difficult path to renown and recognition. Thank goodness, many inroads have been made for women, but there is still a long way to go before true gender-equality in the sciences and computing will be achieved. Still, it is a consolation that we have made massive progress since my own Physics teacher told me in 1984 that Physics was not for girls. I wish he could see the wonderful young women- and now not-so young women- whom I have come across in my career who have now trained as aeronautical engineers, computer analysts and nuclear physicists, amongst many other STEM professions!
This monthly blog was originally published in Northern Insight magazine.