Women in STEM: Historical Perspectives

I’m excited to begin our new Women in STEM series! It will be a weekly feature throughout the summer, with new posts every Thursday or Friday. In this first installment, I will discuss how women have been involved with or kept from STEM fields throughout history. A historical perspective is necessary to understand a lot of the challenges women in science and engineering face today.


There certainly were female scientists, philosophers, and physicians in antiquity — from ancient Greece to the late Roman Empire. However, how many could you name off the top of your head? Many of the ones we do know are introduced as being  the wife or daughter of a male scientist, philosopher, or physician. But women have been undeniably influential in STEM since humanity began formalized studies of the fields. One of the most outstanding examples of a woman making an impact was Hypatia1. She was a Greek Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician. She was the head of the Platonist school in Alexandria, and strongly encouraged the development of logic and mathematical study. Her extensive use of astrolabes led to significant advances in astronomy. She is credited with having invented the hydrometer. In 415 AD, she was brutally murdered by a mob that had been incited to violence by a prominent bishop who was against what he considered “witchcraft” — science2. This foreshadowed centuries of opposition to science, and particularly to women’s involvement in science and math.

Painting of Hypatia from Raphael's The School of Athens.
Painting of Hypatia from Raphael’s The School of Athens.


In the Middle Ages (the Medieval period), which stretched from approximately 500-1500 AD, a crucial cultural shift occurred. The church became the center of life. It encompassed not only religion, but politics and scientific study. One of the principal consequences of this was the need for public, academic, and home lives to be consistent with prevailing interpretations of religious texts. For women, this meant mostly confining their lives to be within the home. There was a way around this, however; a woman could join a convent. Being part of a convent was one of the few ways a woman could participate in an academic or scientific world. While convents were a place for women to “dedicate themselves to God”, they were also a place where childbirth and the demands of marital life did not have as much of a place. Thus, many women from the Medieval era known for their contributions to science and mathematics were nuns. There was another way for women to participate in the academic sector — being part of a university. As the first universities gained traction throughout the 11th century, women were often denied entrance. One of the primary exceptions to this was Italy’s University of Bologna. Many of these women were still daughters, sisters, or wives of men involved in the university3.


While the idea of the “Renaissance man” developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, women’s place remained essentially the same. Although participation in “observational sciences” like astronomy wasn’t completely frowned upon, opportunity to become involved did not abound for women4. However, wherever it did, women did what they could. Their contributions were often not acknowledged.


The 18th century, or the 1700s, saw the beginning of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. Upper echelons of society and intelligentsia played a big role in the development of scientific and mathematical thought3. The aristocracy often held “salons” where learned individuals would come and discuss their work and ideas. Oftentimes, women were heavily involved in these6. Mary Wollstonecraft argued in the late 1700s that women should have better access to educational opportunities, as they were no less intelligent than men. It was simply the lack of opportunity holding women back from helping advance humanity4.  Throughout the 1800s, education for women became more common, though it focused on the “domestic arts”.

Marie Curie, discover of radiation, and Nobel Prize winner.
Marie Curie, discover of radiation, and Nobel Prize winner.

With the advent of the women’s rights and suffrage movements in the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, women had better access to education and then the right to vote3. As the World Wars raged, it became necessary to incorporate more women into the workforce. Between that and various social movements, women became more involved in STEM fields. Lise Meitner was a physicist on the team that discovered nuclear fission, but she was not included as an author in the initial papers published on the topic. Thus, she didn’t end up receiving the credit for her work, and Otto Hahn, her colleague, won the Nobel Prize5.

Lise Meitner, 1946.
Lise Meitner, 1946.

Today, women are still underrepresented in STEM. This isn’t because of lack of capability or inherent lack of interest. As this series progresses I will discuss some primary reasons women remain comparatively uninvolved in these fields, issues confronting women who are involved, stellar role modals, and much more.


Come back next week for the segment on underrepresentation in STEM!


1-6: References and research, links above.

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About Amber Mear

I was the Digilent blog editor, and now I'm a contributor. I love learning about wearables and writing about social issues in STEM. Outside of work, I can be found watching Netflix with my cat, working on an art project, or trying to find new, delicious local foods.

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