Celebrating Women’s History Month: 9 Inspirational Women in STEM

With March being Women’s History Month, we are celebrating inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from the 1940s to today.  Among these stories are pioneers who served as advocates, change-makers, and innovators. Looking back in time, we can see what bravery, tenacity, curiosity and commitment meant, and apply it to our present day realities. Those who have come before us have laid a firm foundation for many more female leaders to flourish in their chosen field.  Let’s start with one of today’s leaders, Reshma Saujani.

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Tamara McCarthy, VP, Strategic Alliances

“Teach girls bravery, not perfection” coined by Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of the National Non-Profit of Girls Who Code, New York Times bestselling Author, Ted Talk Speaker, and the daughter of Indian political refugees who fled Uganda in the 1970’s.  Since founding Girls who code, the organization has reached over 450,000 girls around the world.  The mission is to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech jobs by 2030.   “Girls Who Code” values are: Bravery, Sisterhood, and Activism.  Activism focused on not only preparing girls to enter the workforce, but to lead it and to transform it!

To me, Reshma Saujani is a modern-day pioneer, advocate and change maker for girls and women in STEM and beyond.  Reshma says as girls we are taught to play it safe, to be perfect rather than brave.  For example, women apply to positions only when they have met 100% of the requirements versus men who apply to roles when they have met only 60% of the job requirements.  We as women tend to be people pleasers and we pass up opportunities that are out of our comfort zone.

This resonated with me as I reflected on my own career over the years.  I realized that I have passed up opportunities because I felt I needed to show up perfect to prove my worth, I was afraid of failure or rejection.  It took many years of professional development to realize it was “me” who was holding “me” back and limiting my world of opportunity. To quote Reshma “The perfect is not just the enemy of the good; the pressure to be perfect is the enemy of girls around the world”.

My advice to any girl entering STEM, including my daughter and to any woman considering a role that is out of their comfort zone, be brave enough to reach high and go for it!  Trust yourself that you will figure it out and know that there is a strong sisterhood of women out there to support you and your journey in bravery and imperfection!

Hedy Lamarr, Actress and Inventor 

Sara Snowden, Director, Product Management

In World War II, an esteemed actress, Hedy Lamarr, patented an idea that served as the backbone for secure military communications, WiFi, Bluetooth and cell phone network technology.  Hedy and a partner developed a “Secret Communication System” to prevent radio-controlled torpedo signals from being intercepted in transmission.  They devised a frequency hopping method using a piano roll to change the signal sent from the control center to the missile, where only those two entities had the cipher.  While other frequency hopping solutions had been created, this was the first model that used a symmetric key algorithm.  Hedy was instrumental in anchoring a critical cybersecurity methodology, along with multiple other communications technologies we rely on today.

As the wife of a veteran who supported military communications and as a professional who unintentionally found a calling in cyber, Hedy’s journey resonated with me.  I have spent the last several years focused on cloud transformation to help clients overcome challenges with traditional IT landscapes but observed staggering gaps of practical applications of security.  I shifted to focus on cloud security a few years ago with the intent to help people avoid dangerous situations, breaches, and undue hardships.

Women tend to be natural born leaders, innovators, and effective problem solvers.  We are fortunate in this era of technology to have admirable female STEM leaders who broke the ground we continue to pave.  It took about 20 years for Hedy’s solution to be brought forward, I’m hopeful my path will be significantly shorter.

Grace Hopper, Computer Scientist and United States Navy Rear Admiral 

Lisa Wood, VP, Engineering

COBOL was the first programming language I learned and my first job out of college was as a COBOL programmer, working on financial systems for the military. I can directly trace my career start and trajectory to a woman who broke glass ceilings in STEM, the military, and in business – Grace Hopper

Besides leading the development of the COBOL programming language, Grace Hopper was an early pioneer in compilers, was on the team that created the first all-electronic digital computer (UNIVAC), developed early standards for testing software, served in the US Naval Reserves, and then the US Navy where she rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.  Retiring from the Navy at age 79, she went on to work in the private sector, advocating for the use of computers to improve the lives of their users, until her death at age 85.

Throughout her life Grace Hopper demonstrated curiosity, experimentation, tenacity, and commitment to completing a mission.  She is credited with quotes we use often in technology and business:

  • “It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
  • “The most damaging phrase in the language is: ‘It’s always been done that way.’”
  • “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

Grace Hopper’s amazing career and life is one that we, as women in technology, can point to as forging the path and being the exemplar of what we can accomplish and the impact we can make.

The ENIAC Computer Programmers

Merry Beekman, Sr. Director, Marketing

The Secret History of the ENIAC Women is a documentary about the 6 remarkable women who programmed ENIAC, the first digital computer.  Jean Bartik, Fran Bilas, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff were among those recruited by the Army for their high-level mathematics ability to manually calculate ballistics trajectories during World War II.

To accelerate the calculations the Army commissioned ENIAC and these women were selected as “human computers” to program it.  There was no instruction manual but working together they broke the calculations into steps that the computer could handle.  Figuring out the timing of each panel and setting over 3,000 switches, they devised paneling sheets to keep track of it all.  They created computer programming.

In the history books these women, although portrayed in photos programming the ENIAC, were never recognized for their contributions.  That is until a curious, Harvard undergraduate named Kathy Kleiman made it her mission, over time to make it right.  “The ENIAC Programmers inspired me to stay in computing at a time when every other signal in society was urging me to turn away. It is my great hope that their story will throw open the doors of computing to all!” said Kleiman.

What is remarkable to me is not only Kathy Kleiman’s passion and tenacity but even more so how the women worked together as a team to write the book on computer programming.  I imagine this was an extremely stressful time and they showed adaptability and focus, supporting each other, and appreciating the skills they each brought to the project.  They gave their all working tirelessly checking the wiring, adjusting the dials and verifying the results manually to achieve the most precise calculations.

We can learn so much from these amazing STEM leaders, women who boldly chartered new terrains, solved seemingly insurmountable problems, and dedicated themselves to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. As today’s women in STEM, we are humbly grateful to count ourselves among these leaders as we contribute in our own unique ways to building a path for future generations.

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