Girls, STEM, and My List of “Ingenious Inventors”

There is much talk these days about girls and STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In 2009, only 24% of scientists and engineers were women. This is not surprising, given the fact that women comprise only about 17% of the students earning degrees in these subjects, as compared to the 79% of students earning bachelor’s degrees in education. There are material benefits to building careers in STEM. A woman in a STEM-related career earns, on average, 33% more than a woman in a non-STEM field.  Given the continued gender wage gap, and the high numbers of women in poverty in this country, it makes sense to encourage an interest in STEM. How to do so has been the tricky part. Colleges and universities — as well as prospective employers — actively recruit women to enroll in STEM programs. But getting young women interested in these fields has been more difficult. The old maxims that girls don’t pursue these interests because “Math class is tough,” and their brains are not “hardwired” for it, no longer suffice. Researchers have found ample evidence that demonstrates that it is a combination of gender conditioning and a lack of role models that make girls feel that they don’t “belong” in STEM. This isn’t just about finding gender equity in the workplace or the college classroom, then; it’s also about reframing the gendered messages we send to young girls and women about femininity and science.

In an effort to combat the gender conditioning that discourages girls from an interest in science and math, there are abundant resources designed to build on the natural curiosity of most children, to nurture a self-awareness and confidence in girls at a time when other cultural forces are pushing them away from risk-taking, kinetic activities, and to provide them with a path to a STEM-based career.  This isn’t just happening on the high school or collegiate level, although there certainly are a great many resources aimed at young women in those demographics. There are mini-grants, summer camps, television shows, after school programs, and classroom resources available to students in elementary school – even girls as young as kindergartners. Everyone from the U.S. Department of Education to the Girls Scouts of the USA are trying to improve the number of girls interested in STEM.

The GoldieBlox Girls

Even for those people not actively pursuing these resources, not parenting daughters, or not in careers that talk about the status of women in STEM, the idea that we need to encourage girls to get interested in science has become part of our cultural milieu. This was made visible when an advertisement that featured eight- and nine-year-old girls and their elaborate “Princess Machine” went viral recently. The original version of the ad by GoldieBlox used a reconfigured version of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” a song not about female empowerment, to pitch the toy and the idea behind it. (You can read the full lyrics on Tekla Perry’s blog, but the video no longer uses the rap due to copyright issues.) The advertisement, like the other STEM resources out there, encouraged girls not only to experiment with science, but also to envision themselves as scientists.

None of this was on my mind when I opened my third-grader’s backpack, but it all came crashing down on me as I looked at the booklet he made for social studies class, “My Book of Ingenious Inventors.” Thomas Alva Edison, the “many inventors” who “worked to make the automobile” (Charles and Frank Duryea, Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, Charles King, and Alexander Winton), Alexander Graham Bell, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Vannevar Bush (the analog computer, in case you were wondering), and Jonas Salk. All of them men. All of them

What is the point of throwing all these resources at improving the number of women in STEM when the most basic classroom materials continue to erase all women and all people of color from the curriculum? Yes, I know this was just one exercise. Yes, I know that teachers are overworked and underpaid and that Common Core is “making things tricky.” Hand to heart, I am not faulting my son’s teacher. I think she is absolutely wonderful. I know she’s working with the resources that she has available.* My point is that so much of what she has available… sucks.

As a professor of American women’s history, I found this particularly irksome. Probably the only thing that saved me from beating my head against the wall was that morning’s Google Doodle, which just happened to be a tribute to Grace Hopper, the woman who invented COBOL, Common Business-Oriented Language, and thus “taught computers to use words.” Although scholars of women’s history like to think that the eras of contributory and compensatory history are behind us, I think we would do well to remember that in our elementary and secondary schools, we are still struggling to get women included in the basic curriculum.

Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker

What I found most especially irksome, though, was how long it took me to think of a few women to include in a unit on Ingenious Inventors. As I stared at the spines of all the books on the shelves in my office, I could only think of Madame C. J. Walker’s hair products. After some more staring, and a lot of sighing, and then some Googling, I came up with a list of my own Ingenious Inventors:

  • Mary Anderson (windshield wipers)
  • Tabitha Babbit (circular saw)
  • Martha Coston (colored signal flares)
  • Marion Donovan (disposable diapers)
  • Temple Grandin (more ethical livestock handling facilities)
  • Letitia Geer (medical syringe)
  • Alice Parker (central heating)
  • Margaret Wilcox (car heater)
Mary Anderson
Mary Anderson

It occurred to me that with just four words, “Mary Anderson, Margaret Wilcox,” the authors of the “My Book of Ingenious Inventors” exercise could include two women on the list of people who “worked to make the automobile.” Anderson and Wilcox did not invent the automobile, but neither did most of the men on that page. I would argue that being able to see in the rain and to avoid hypothermia in the winter definitely expanded the utility of the vehicles as much as the invention of a gasoline-powered, rather than steam-powered, engine (the Duryea brothers) or the implementation of assembly-line production to lower costs (Ford, Olds).

On the off-chance that you are reading this and you are in a position as a parent or educator to provide children with role models of women in STEM careers (and let me make clear that as the mother of a boy, I think it is important for him to have women as role models, too, so this isn’t just about the girls after all), you can find more here and here and here. Please share in the comments below who would make your list of inventors, and why. Also, if you are an educator or a scholar of educational resources and pedagogy, please share any recommendations you have on resources that are gender-inclusive (and racial-inclusive). Inquiring minds want to know!


*Upon further interrogation, my son told me that while the booklet activity only included men, there was one woman included in the overall classroom lesson on inventors. He cannot remember her name (“It might have been Eileen…”), and he says that she discovered a vaccine, although he cannot remember which one. Any ideas on who this might have been?

About the Author


Jacqueline Antonovich

Lets add Margaret Pittman to the list. She was part of the team that developed a mechanism for testing the safety and efficacy vaccines – including pertussis), she developed standards for blood plasma, and she also became the first woman to head a major laboratory at the National Institutes of Health.

Susan Ferrari

The most famous female inventors not on your list would seem to me to be Ada Lovelace (key figure in the history of computer science who’s sometimes called the world’s first programmer) and Hedy Lamarr (co-invented, with George Antheil, a spread-spectrum frequency-hopping wireless communication, which at the time was intended to enhance radio control of torpedoes but basically underlies systems like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi).

In slightly deeper cuts, Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown co-invented Nystatin, the first antifungal drug safe for use in humans. (They received >$13 million in royalties for the invention, all of which they donated to Research Corporation–the foundation that still sponsors the Cottrell College Science Awards–to support other scientists’ work.)

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

More good inventors! I thought about Hedy Lamarr and Ada Lovelace. I don’t know why they weren’t on my list? I think I got distracted by the car heater and the central heating since it’s so cold these days!

Elizabeth Reis

Let’s add Sarah Breedlove Walker

From the internet: Sarah Breedlove Walker, the daughter of former slaves, was orphaned at seven and widowed by 20. Madame Walker is credited with inventing hair lotions, creams, and an improved hair styling hot comb. But her greatest achievement may be the development of the Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools, which offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Walker Agents, mostly Black women. Sarah Walker was the first American woman self-made millionaire.

Danielle Swiontek

Marie Curie, who was the only female scientist I was exposed to in elementary school.


One Japanese scientist worth mention is Saruhashi Katsuko, who showed the dangers of radioactive fallout by being one of the first scientists to measure carbon dioxide levels in seawater. She was determined to become a researcher, not a teacher. The Society of Japanese Women Scientists was also formed around this time, in 1958. I would also like to mention one man who supported Japanese women scientists, Hideki Yukawa. He received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1949 for developing meson theory.

And while this is not scientific, the world’s first novel was written by a woman. Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji in the 11th century.

I really enjoyed this post! Thanks, Carolyn.


To go back into European history, Hildegard von Bingen was a composer, natural scientist, writer, nun and generally interesting character.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

She might need to go on a list of People Who Make Me Feel Lazy…. 🙂


No list like this is complete without Ada Lovelace and Heddy Lamarr!

Here are a few more nominees – heavy on computer science because those are my chicks. Some of these women are still living.

Mary Phelps Jacob: modern brassieres (OK, maybe not for the elementary school crowd!)
Stephanie Kwolek: Kevlar
Josephine Cochrane: dishwashers
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller: co-developer of BASIC programming language, first American female PhD in computer science
Jean E. Sammet: COBOL and FORMAC programming languages
Sophie Wilson: Acorn microcomputers
Erna Schneider Hoover: computerized telephone switching system, received one of the first software patents
Mary Allen Wilkes: first operating system for the first minicomputer
Betty Holberton: co-developed several programming languages, wrote first stats software for the US Census in 1950
Karen Sparck Jones: foundational concept (IDF) for information retrieval, still in use in major search engines
Carla Meninsky: Atari Dodge ‘Em game (and others)
Radia Perlman: spanning-tree protocol that enabled Ethernet LANs – the “Mother of the Internet”
Katherine Blodgett: non-reflective glass coating – important for eyeglasses, among numerous other applications
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow: co-inventor of radioimmunoassay, which revolutionized medical diagnostics and got her a Nobel Prize
Anna Connelly: fire escapes
Maria Beaseley: life rafts
Letitia Geer: medical syringes
Ruth Wakefield: chocolate chips and chocolate chip cookies – talk about cultural impact!
Lyda A. Newman: improved hairbrushes (woman of color)
Marjorie Joyner: hair styling hot comb often erroneously credited to CJ Walker (woman of color)
Patricia Bath, MD: several medical devices for treating cataracts (woman of color)

There were 6 women in the team that programmed the ENIAC in 1946! Their work was beyond impressive and incredibly important as foundational work in computing.

It does rather irk me that a number of the most often mentioned inventions are relatively trivial items, particularly grooming and beauty products. I’d hope that could be discussed in context – those early inventors didn’t have the opportunities or education to develop more substantive contributions. Women couldn’t get patents until the late 1800s because they weren’t legally permitted to own property or enter into legal agreements.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

This is amazing! Tell me the truth: were you able to do that list without having to look them up? If so, I bow down to you! In any case, it’s an excellent list.


Oh, no! I looked them up. 🙂

But I did know just where to look for fairly good information on women in computing, so that kinda helped. The other famously accomplished women are no less impressive than the inventors!


Dr Fiona Wood, inventor of ground breaking skin graft technique ‘spray on skin’. Recent, but completely new and life-saving.


This is so strange! I just finished a sociology class about women in STEM last week! I had never heard of the term “STEM” until I took the class.

For my final, I looked at the effect that teachers, and counselors/advisors had on female students. According to a study done by Jacobs and Eccles in 1985, teachers of both genders have lower expectations for thier female students.

I say that these gender biases rub off on their students, and make girls believe that they don’t belong in STEM. Also when it comes to math and science testing, the stereotype threat presented to girls seriously harms their results. Due to this threat, they avoid math and science because they think that STEM is a man’s domain. Girls will no longer have interest in science or math because they avoided taking those classes.

I am a Chemical Engineering major, and proud of it! : )

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

It makes sense that the children who get these messages grow up to be the adults who perpetuate them. Thanks for sharing!


Had to chime in here as a refugee from that world because one comment you made has a rather big gap, one that swallows women and girls whole:

… it’s also about reframing the gendered messages we send to young girls and women about femininity and science.

It is also about reframing the gendered messages we send to YOUNG BOYS AND MEN ABOUT MASCULINITY AND SCIENCE.

Basically, in my experience, the hard sciences were so hostile, so filled with rammy, horny, hostile young 20-something boys who were convinced they were the smartest people in the room and weren’t gonna let no b*tch tell them they had the wrong limits on their integrals that they pretty much made it impossible for women in that world.

It’s not a matter of Not Letting It Bother You, in the easy-breezy-fabulous words of people who have clearly never tried to actually accomplish something in an atmosphere that constantly poisons you. It’s a matter of being ambitious, smart, and having to go elsewhere to achieve things rather than sit there and be shouted at, hated, constantly have your ideas stolen and attributed to other (male) students, and to be told you’re dreaming and making it all up when you try to address the problem.

Why the hell does everyone try to fix this problem by assuming that something’s wrong with the GIRLS?! Big ol’ hint: OUR behavior is not the damn problem.

Sorry, but this crap about how “girls don’t think they belong there” just pisses me off to no end. BOYS don’t think the girls belong there, and when you are the only girl in the room and can’t get anything done because of it, sticking around and trying to shovel shit against the tide starts to feel a lot like sticking with an abusive spouse because “he needs me” and “I can change him.”

No one wants to hear that, though — mostly because women are still futilely trying to get empowered in the most timid way possible, by not saying anything that will hold men accountable for their actions. Mr. Sir might get angry with us if we point out that his behavior is the problem … so we try to become faux-empowered in ways that won’t rock the boat. I wonder why it keeps failing.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

I agree with you that it doesn’t do much good to change the way girls and women think about their roles if we don’t also change the way boys and men think about themselves. That’s what I was getting at with my comment about this not being just about the girls after all and wanting my son to have female role models. However, girls/women are part of the problem if we don’t identify the patterns that are harmful/limiting and then attempt to change them. This isn’t blaming the victim; it’s recognizing that no one is going to magically change things for us. We have to be the forces of change — and force/encourage/cajole others to change as well.


It’s not a matter of whether it’s called victim-blaming though … it’s simply a matter of solving the wrong problem IMO.


“Sorry, but this crap about how “girls don’t think they belong there” just pisses me off to no end. BOYS don’t think the girls belong there, and when you are the only girl in the room and can’t get anything done because of it, sticking around and trying to shovel shit against the tide starts to feel a lot like sticking with an abusive spouse because “he needs me” and “I can change him.”

Great response here.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Me, too. Wish I had seen it with the original song!

Amy Lamkin

Thank you for the thoughtful post. As a women engineer in a male dominated field, I try to inspire girls so they can become more interested in Math and Science.
I have re-shared your post on my blog. I hope you don’t mind


Let’s add Barbara McClintock to the list. Winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Dr. McClintock made leaping contributions to genetics, particularly with genetic transposition. I’m sorry to say that she wasn’t treated well at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, because she was a woman and thus went on to conduct her groundbreaking research elsewhere. She is a great example of perseverance coupled with ingenuity and is worthy of mention here and in primary and secondary school curriculum.

Ms. Roberts

I am a woman studying science in college now. At twelve years old, I became interested in science but as I got older, I thought I wasn’t smart enough for science. Not until I got a job working in a laboratory that I became interested in it again and started school. Thanks for the post. I was going to write something about women in STEM myself.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

I intended to be an astronaut. Even went to SpaceCamp! But I became extremely discouraged (to put it mildly) with calculus in high school. I just couldn’t get it, and clearly I didn’t have a teacher who tried to help with that. Fortunately, that was about the time I fell in love with history, so it all worked out.

Ms. Roberts

I am not much of a math person either. I have a feeling it is going to be difficult. But I don’t want that to stop me from pursuing my dream.

Tiffany K. Wayne

Oh, there are tons of women inventors in many different fields.The problem is not necessarily finding women in STEM (historically speaking), but REMEMBERING and TEACHING about them! I have numerous biographical entries and also essays on women, gender, feminism, and science in my book, _American Women of Science since 1900_, published by ABC-CLIO in 2011.
As for vaccines, Rachel Fuller Brown and Elizabeth Hazen made some of the most important antibiotic discoveries and developed several vaccines.

Tiffany Wayne


Oh thank you so much for this post! I’m so glad to see the discussion of women in STEM is growing! Next we need to work on minorities in STEM!


This is such a great piece. I’m glad I found it this morning in Freshly Pressed. I just began working at a college in Washington that has a STEM focus. As well, I run a blog on positive stories of the environment, The Ecotone Exchange. I’d like to reblog your story there, and then follow it with some profiles of women I went to graduate school with to earn my Master’s in Environmental Studies. Are you willing? You can contact me at theecotoneexchange at gmail.

Comments are closed.