Two female scientists of color look into a microscope

In the Shadows: Shining a Light on Overlooked Women of Colour in STEM

In the Shadows: Shining a Light on Overlooked Women of Colour in STEM

Several physical and social science fields dwell on a collection of mostly white men who they deem to have laid the foundations in their area of study. The individuals worshiped vary based  on the field. Still, the message is the same: science and research is a space for a privileged  group of white men only. What seems like a simple mistake in teaching methods instead points  us to a deeper problem in science. In many sciences, the study itself has been embedded with  racist ideas; anthropology started with a colonial approach deeming non-white cultures as  “others”; while people studying biology worked to try and legitimize views of white superiority. In  other areas of study, the problem is that the notable women within them have consistently been  questioned, overlooked, stolen from, or ignored. Rosalind Franklin, for example, had crucial  contributions in understanding the structure of DNA that went unacknowledged while her male  colleagues instead got the credit. This lack of diversity persists even in fields focused on  women. Embedded within the way that we study women’s history is a trail of racism and  erasure. Our whitewashed and male-centric approach to the sciences isn’t just something that  can be untaught. Oftentimes, discriminatory values and ideas make up some of the building  blocks of certain areas of study.  

And so, professionals in the physical and social sciences must counteract these harmful  narratives to make their fields more inclusive. Doing so not only encourages more women to  enter, which, in time, counteracts the gender imbalance in male-dominated spheres of  academia – but it is also vital for men. By bringing to light all of the women that curricula have  ignored, men will no longer be taught in a way that reinforces ideas of male dominance in the  sciences. Therefore, they will have more respect for their female colleagues. This can also be  said of race; marginalized races need to have better representation in their curricula to see  themselves fit in with the field they are studying. It is also important for white students to be  taught in a system that actively works to dismantle any implicit bias they may have regarding  race. Spotlighting women – and especially women of color – in the sciences is an absolute  must. Below are just three of the many women whose work and achievements have been  overlooked. 

Asima Chatterjee 

Asima Chatterjee was an Indian chemist who made several contributions to medicinal  chemistry. Much of her work focused on medicinal plants and using chemicals found in  indigenous plants to develop medicine. Her achievements included the creation of an anti epileptic drug as well as an antimalarial drug. Chatterjee had an honors bachelor's degree in  chemistry from Scottish Church College and a Master of Science degree in organic chemistry at  the University of Calcutta. She was also the first female scientist to receive a Doctor of Science  from a university in India – the University of Calcutta – and won several awards for her work  throughout her life. She toured internationally and visited universities in several other countries,  such as Australia, Japan, Switzerland, the former USSR, and Great Britain, to give lectures and  participate in conferences. She did all of this while also doing all the unpaid labor that women  are frequently expected to do, like cooking and household chores. Though she is a successful  and influential female figure in science, her name rarely appears in science curricula. 

Gladys West

Gladys West was an American mathematician at a time when Black people, especially Black  women, were gatekept from many realms of academia. She grew up on a farm in Virginia but  knew that education was her way out of the farming life. Though they tried, her family didn’t  have the money to pay for her college fully; however, West was able to attend Virginia State  College after receiving a scholarship for the top two students in her grade and by paying the rest  with money earned from babysitting and some support from her parents. She graduated as a  math major and then pursued a Master’s degree in math from the same institution a few years  later. After receiving her Master’s, West got a job at a naval base in Virginia, where she  experienced impostor syndrome and a sense of alienation from her male and white colleagues;  all in the backdrop of the American Civil Rights Movement. Though her government work made  it difficult for her to join the efforts, she engaged in her battle to rise through the ranks to fight  back against the anti-Black stigma around her. Eventually, she became the project manager of  a satellite project called Seasat, which was crucial in developing the first global positioning  system (GPS). She continued to work at military bases – and even got another Master’s degree  from the University of Oklahoma in public administration – and then worked towards a Ph.D. in  public administration and policy affairs after retiring. Her contributions to GPS have received  little recognition. 

Mary Golda Ross 

Mary Golda Ross, a Cherokee woman, was the first Native American aerospace engineer. She  grew up in Oklahoma and was raised with the Cherokee tradition that valued equal education  regardless of gender. When she was 16, she attended Northeastern State Teachers’ College,  formerly known as the Cherokee Female Seminary, and received a degree in math. After  spending some time teaching in rural Oklahoma, she pursued a Master’s degree from the  Colorado State College of Education. She was hired to join Lockheed Aircraft Corporation soon  after and was the only female engineer (and the only Native American) in Lockheed’s Advanced  Development Programs. She was involved in the “space race.” After retirement, she continued  to give lectures to high schoolers and college students, hoping to inspire other women and  Native Americans to follow in her footsteps. Much of her work remained classified, but though  her work and her legacy are unknown by many, a $1 coin honoring her achievements was  created and issued in 2019.