Ask any young girl in the U.S. today to name the top five leading ladies in Hollywood and they’re likely to recite with ease a complete and accurate list in less than sixty seconds. But ask them to come up with five names of past and present notable females in science and technology and they’ll undoubtedly need some help from a Google search.
Even then, the names that surface may be as foreign to them as the subjects in which these women of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) are renowned. After all, how many of us are familiar with the latest research in artificial radioactivity, nuclear fission or environmental remediation?
When it comes to the topic of women in science, Marie Curie (1867-1934) is the one name that typically emerges from the void. Actively promoting throughout her life the use of radium to alleviate suffering, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 and the first person to win a second in 1911. In fact, her daughter Irène Curie-Joliot (1897-1956) followed closely in her footsteps and won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935, making them the first parent-child duo to have independently won this prestigious award. That’s no small feat. Though Curie achieved great notoriety, her quiet, dignified and unassuming demeanor is certainly characteristic of many brilliant, dedicated and determined women who have made significant discoveries, yet remain in the shadows.
Consider the general obscurity of Lois Marie Gibbs, who in 1978 discovered that her Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York and the school her child attended were both built atop a toxic dumping site for the Occidental Petroleum company. After succeeding in a campaign to relocate 900 families, Gibbs founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in 1981 and helped organize grassroots efforts nationwide to raise awareness of the devastating impact toxic chemicals have on human health, particularly in the development of young children.
Women like Curie and Gibbs, inarguably natural-born investigators, possess a strong desire and passion for science, but even if it is in a young woman’s nature to pursue the unworn path, it’s the nurturing piece of the puzzle that continues to elude the gender and present the greatest obstacles. Though statistics vary by country, there’s a general consensus girls feel less motivated to choose STEM fields and have less confidence in their abilities than boys.
For example, a British study prepared for the London Mathematical Society found 42 percent of undergraduates in math are female yet only 6 percent of math professors are women. And in the U.S., according to a census bureau report, despite making up about half of the workforce overall, women still represent only about 26 percent of workers in STEM fields. In fact, there are dozens of studies, including a report published by Tools For Change entitled “Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women in Science,” that point to the role of cultural attitudes and their significant influence on the number of women in STEM careers.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to offer science as a real and viable career choice for a young woman before she reaches the conclusion that the fight is not worth the effort required to overcome the obstacles standing in her way.Imagine if Marie Curie or Jane Goodall, the world-renowned British primatologist, called it quits, collapsing under the weight of discrimination. Or more crucial, imagine a female Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein coming up in the world today with her future hanging in the balance.
Perhaps one day, young girls in the U.S., rather than associating the name Elizabeth with the actress whose last name is Banks, will think of Blackwell—the first to become a female medical doctor in the United States. Or instead of pairing the first name Rachel with the last name McAdams—yet another American actress—they’ll associate it with Carson—the American marine biologist and conservationist who brought to light the hazards of dangerous pesticides like DDT and revolutionized the global environmental movement.
About The Author
Dr. Kristen Thoreson leads the chemical research and product development program at REGENESIS®, the global leader in advanced environmental remediation technologies. A trained chemist, Thoreson’s graduate and post-doctorate research focused on mechanistic investigations of biotic and abiotic chlorinated ethene degradation pathways using molecular model systems and compound specific isotope analysis (CSIA). She obtained her BSc in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and her PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Minnesota and spent time as a postdoctoral associate at the Helmholtz Zentrum in Munich, Germany as a part of the research unit for environmental organic isotope chemistry.
Founded in 1994, REGENESIS is a global environmental remediation company leading in the research, development and commercialization of technology-based solutions designed to restore contaminated soil and groundwater. REGENESIS’ scientifically proven, patented in situ products and solutions have successfully removed or neutralized hazardous industrial chemicals and toxins in more than 25,000 soil and groundwater cleanup projects across the globe. REGENESIS is the green choice for leading engineering, construction and environmental consulting firms serving a broad range of clients, including developers, insurance companies, manufacturers, municipalities, regulatory agencies and federal, state and local governments. Driven by a desire to assist those charged with managing the complex environmental challenges of the 21st century, REGENESIS not only simplifies processes and significantly reduces costs; but also contributes to a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous world. For more information, visit www.regenesis.com.