Today, February 11, is a momentous day. Not because it is inventor Thomas Edison’s 170th birthday or because actor Jennifer Aniston turns 48. But because today, and every February 11 in the future, is officially recognised as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
So what is this day all about? It’s really quite simple; it is a day established by the United Nations in 2016 to recognise the critical role women and girls play in science and to promote the full and equal participation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
There are countless studies, reports, and research papers that demonstrate women and girls are underrepresented in STEM disciplines and careers. According to a 2016 Women In Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) report there are approximately 802,848 women working in STEM within the UK. This may seem like an impressive number but it only equates to 21% of the entire core STEM workforce. Stereotypes, biases, and perceptions are just some of the social and environmental factors that contribute to the engagement, or disengagement, of women and girls with STEM.
We are all responsible for creating a more diverse, inclusive, and successful workforce (and society). We can do this by empowering women, by celebrating the successes of our peers, and encouraging the next generation of kids to see their own potential.
To celebrate the second International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let us look at the achievements of some great female scientists.
Marie Curie is one of the most accomplished and incredible scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries. She was a physicist and a chemist. She discovered radium, as well as polonium. She was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win twice. (PHEW!) Without Marie Curie and her research we wouldn’t know the structure of the atom, we wouldn’t have radiotherapy, nor artificial radioactivity (thanks to her Nobel Prize winning daughter Irène Joliot-Curie’s research).
Rosalind Franklin is Cambridge royalty. She studied chemistry and X-ray crystallography at the University of Cambridge and was a research fellow at Newnham College. Rosalind then went onto King’s College London, where her research focussed on solving molecular structures using X-ray crystallography. Her X-ray images of DNA provided a eureka moment for scientists puzzling over the structure of DNA, although her work (which was used without her permission) towards the discovery was not recognised at the time, nor several years later when the Nobel Prize awarded for the discovery omitted Franklin. Thankfully Franklin’s contributions to the discovery are now more widely known, although the topic is still controversial and often open to debate. After leaving King’s, Franklin went on to work on virology at Birkbeck University, publishing 17 papers in just five years, and leading the group that laid the foundations for structural virology.
In 1991, Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space. While working as a chemist, Helen heard on the radio an ad about training to become an astronaut to be sent to the Mir space station. Of the thirteen thousand people that applied, Helen was selected (on live TV to boot!). After eighteen months of training, which included flight training, personality tests, and learning Russian, Helen spent seven days, twenty-one hours, and thirteen minutes in space, conducting experiments, maintaining the space station, and having a once in a lifetime experience.
These are just three examples of inspiring women in science. There are so many more girls and women that have changed the face of science, changed how we viewed the world, and have contributed to the betterment of our society. Let’s celebrate our peers, celebrate their achievements, and celebrate the next generation of scientists.
So happy birthday Thomas Edison, happy birthday Jennifer Aniston! But most importantly of all, Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science!
Find out more about the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science at http://www.un.org/en/events/women-and-girls-in-science-day/
Find out more about the WISE Campaign at
Photo sources: Spudgun67, Anne-Katrin Purkiss