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IWD 19: 6 female STEM role models you should really know about

With International Women’s Day just around the corner it’s a great time for a throwback to the women who’ve challenged gender roles in STEM careers throughout history. Whether you’re a climate change warrior with your sights set on saving the turtles or you reckon you’ve thought of something better than Fortnite, these women will definitely inspire you to aim high.


1940s: Mavis Batey – Bletchley Park Codebreaker

Although you may know the name Alan Turing, the man credited with cracking the Enigma code during World War 2, you may not know that 75% of the famous codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park was made up of women.


Hacking your ex’s Netflix account is one thing, cracking codes that were key to the success of D-Day is another. At just 19, Mavis Batey was one of the leading female codebreakers in WW2, impressing the ranks with her logical and linguistic skills.



If problem solving is your thing and changing the world sounds right up your street then maybe it’s time to consider a career in coding. Have a look at our round up of student coders making a big impact here.


1960s: Katherine G Johnson – NASA Mathematician

If you’re a budding mathlete you should definitely know about Katherine G Johnson – as one of the first ‘computers’, Johnson’s work at NASA involved reading data and performing complex manual calculations.


She quickly gained a reputation for her extraordinary maths skills, and her precision with numbers meant that astronaut John Glenn famously refused to begin his orbit around the Earth until the complex trajectory calculations had been checked personally by Johnson.


If all this sounds eerily familiar, you may have seen Johnson portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the Hollywood hit Hidden Figures in 2016, telling the story of the unsung black female heroes of the 1960s space race.



1960s: Dorothy Hodgkin – Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1964

A shining example of patience and persistence, it took Dorothy Hodgkin a lifetime’s work to discover the structure of insulin, a breakthrough that would go on to improve treatments for diabetes and many other diseases.


Hodgkin was fascinated by the hormone and how it affected the human body (something all teens can relate to!), but technology wasn’t advanced enough at the time to properly model the structure. She didn’t let that stop her though, dedicating the majority of her career to improving X-ray crystallography techniques until, finally, 35 years later, she was able to achieve her goal.



She was busy along the way too, determining the atomic structure of vitamin B12, cholesterol and penicillin. She won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for her work on vitamin B12, remaining the only British female to do so.


The lesson here? Don’t give up at the first hurdle, keep hustling!


1980s: Dr Sylvia Earle – Marine Scientist


Has Blue Planet got you fascinated by life below the surface? Someone who knows all about underwater life is Dr Sylvia Earle. Now a dedicated advocate for climate change action, sustainability and the protection of our oceans, Earle is perhaps the world’s best known female marine scientist and has led more than 100 deep sea expeditions.


Not satisfied with pioneering the use of SCUBA equipment and setting diving records, she also helped design and build the ‘Deep Rover’, a submersible craft that could dive to incredible depths of over 3,000 feet.


2000s: Victoria Alonso – VFX at Marvel Studios

Whether you’re at the back end of a hefty Marvel binge in preparation for the upcoming Captain Marvel or you’re an Avengers-only kind of gal, you’ll have come across the work of Victoria Alonso.


The first woman to head up VFX at Marvel Studios, she’s responsible for bringing the complex and cosmic worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to life on screen, from Iron Man to Black Panther.



Alonso is also an active ambassador for women in the film industry, acting as a champion of complex female characters on screen, a mentor for women in the industry and a leading voice for inspiring women to get into VFX in the first place.


Think the film industry might be for you? Check out our list of potential career choices here.


2018: Donna Strickland – Nobel Prize for Physics 2018

Think time travelling in the Tardis or Star Wars lightsabers… well, almost. Donna Strickland’s work in laser physics found a way to make ultrashort, high-intensity pulses, thousands of times more powerful than ever before.


This incredible scientific achievement earned her the Nobel Prize for Physics – the first woman to win in 55 years! Her work has revolutionised laser eye surgery and has growing list of uses, so who knows? Maybe teleportation is next?



These 6 boss ladies paved the way for girl power in STEM, beginning to build a gender-balanced world and changing lives and industries along the way.


If you’re after more inspo, watch our video series featuring women currently using their STEM skills in unexpected and exciting careers.


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Resources and tools designed to help you guide your children through GCSE's and A-Levels.


Resources, tools and talking points designed to help you improve STEM subject participation and to engage more girls in the classroom.


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