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

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 white.photo

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?

Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.

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