Black Women Who Shattered Ceilings in STEM
Black History Month is here! What a wonderful opportunity to celebrate incredible black women who have changed the world. The technology we use every day is thanks to these women! These trailblazers paved their own paths and followed their ambitions despite society’s obstacles. And there were many obstacles due to the mixture of racial segregation, sexism, etc. But they persevered and shattered ceilings that helped modern-day women succeed in STEM!
This list is nowhere near exhaustive. Please share your favorite Black Female role models in STEM in the comments so that we can add them here.
Katherine was an American mathematician who started her career at NASA. She was a Human Computer under the leadership of Dorothy Vaughan– we’ll come back to Dorothy later. Katherine was a crucial figure in calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for multiple groundbreaking space flights. She was an integral part of the Space Shuttle Program and worked on NASA’s plans for a mission to Mars.
Katherine Johnson (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Back to Dorothy! She was also a Human Computer, and a mathematician at NASA (formerly NACA). She worked in the segregated “West Area Computing” unit. Part of her work was processing aeronautical research data. She was promoted to lead the group, becoming NACA’s first black supervisor. Once NACA became NASA, she joined the Analysis and Computation Division, which was at the frontier of electronic computing. She became an expert FORTRAN programmer! She even helped train her colleagues, preparing them for the introduction of machine computers.
Dorothy Vaughan (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Meet mathematician and aerospace engineer, Mary Jackson! She began her career in the “West Area Computing” unit, too. Despite universities being segregated at the time, she managed to secure permission to take advanced training and graduate-level math and physics courses at the University of Virginia. In 1958, she became NASA’s first Black female engineer! Her research contributed to countless scientific advances. She was dedicated to hiring and promoting the next generation of female scientists at NASA.
Mary Jackson (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Melba Roy Mouton
Melba was another amazing black women at NASA. She led a team of Human Computers. Melba Roy Mouton was an Assistant Chief of Research Programs at NASA’s Trajectory and Geodynamics Division. She became Head Mathematician working on the first passive communications satellite projects (Echo 1 & 2). She later became Program Production Section Chief at NASA’s first space flight center, the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Melba Roy Mouton (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Christine Darden
Dr. Darden was such a pioneer at NASA. She was a mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer. She dedicated the majority of her 40 years at NASA to researching supersonic flights and sonic booms. Plus, she authored more than 50 publications in the field! She started off as a– you guessed it!– Human Computer. After 8 years of daily calculations, she approached her supervisor to ask why men with the same educational background were being hired as engineers and women weren’t. Because she advocated for herself and others, she transitioned into the engineering department. Her first assignment was to write a computer program for a sonic boom. The rest was history!
Mae C. Jemison
Mae was the first black woman in space! She is an incredibly well rounded person– she’s an engineer, physician, and of course, former NASA astronaut! She made an impact in so many fields, including computer programming, printed wiring board materials, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, computer magnetic disc production, and reproductive biology.
Jemison worked as a doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone before applying to become an astronaut at NASA. After leaving NASA, she founded a technology research company and a non-profit educational foundation.
Do you like GPS technology? Then thank Gladys West, another amazing black woman! She contributed to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth and satellite geodesy models that were later used in the creation of GPS. Against all odds, she pursued her ambitions. She received an an amazing education, which was her ticket out of rural Virginia. In 2018 Gladys West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame!
Computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist — meet Annie Easley. This incredibly brilliant black woman got into NASA despite not having completed her Bachelor’s degree! As Human Computers got replaced by machine computers, she learned computer programming languages like Fortran and SOAP. She ended up getting two Bachelor’s degrees, in pharmacy and mathematics, while working full-time.
Perhaps Annie’s biggest claim to fame is how she helped members of her community to prepare for literacy tests. These tests were required to register to vote and designed to exclude black people. So her work was a really big deal, since she was a major contributor to helping African American Communities have a voice in politics. She was also an advocate for women in STEM, breaking down barriers for future generations.
Annie Easley (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes
Dr. Lofton Haynes is such an inspiring black woman. She was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics in the US! Dr. Lofton Hanyes was a distinguished educator, teaching in DC public schools for over 47 years. She was also the first woman to chair the DC Board of Education! During that time she was an avid critic of a biased “track system”. This system discriminated against African-American students, leaving them unprepared for college. She managed to stop the system in her home town of DC.
Euphemia Lofton Haynes (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Valerie was another super smart black woman. She was a scientist and inventor. Valerie Thomas invented the illusion transmitter – a technology she got a patent for that NASA still uses to this day! This invention enabled technologies like MRI and 3D television! She worked on a variety of projects at NASA. She helped with developing digital media formats for image processing systems. These were used in the early stages of the project responsible for Satellite Imagery of Earth!
Valerie Thomas (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Janet Emerson Bashen
Meet entrepreneur, business consultant, and software inventor Janet Bashen! She patented an EEO software application, LinkLine. This app was specifically made to help with equal employment opportunities. She is the first African American woman to receive a patent for a web-based software! These days, she works to promote equal opportunities with her company, Bashen Corporation.
Janet Emerson Bashen (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Wow! Dr. Jackson was the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT. She performed groundbreaking scientific research in the field of communications. Her work enabled the inventions of the fax machine, touch-tone phone, fiber optic cells, solar cells and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.
She has received numerous awards and broken a ton of glass ceilings, too. She became the first black female president of a major technological institute (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). Also, she was the first black woman appointed chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Go, Dr. Jackson!
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Marie came up with the first Home Security System! Her invention had a system of cameras, and microphones (for two-way communication). It also had a button to call the authorities and a remote control to open the door in case if they wanted to let the guest in. Jointly with her husband, they patented the technology in 1969. That was the beginning of the home security system as we know it now! She is also credited with the invention of closed circuit television. We have this amazing black woman to thank for keeping us safe at home!
Dr. Marian Croak
Dr. Croak applied for and was granted over 3500 patents in communication technologies. That’s right, 3500! She started her career in AT&T Bell Laboratories and has worked her way up the organization. This amazing black woman became Senior Vice President of Research and Development. She helped advanced technologies that we use every single day — like voice calling and text messaging. In 2014 she left the company and joined Google as the Vice President of Engineering. She focuses now on expanding the internet into emerging markets, including working on project Loon!
Do you like GIFs? Lisa Gelobter is credited for developing the animation technology used to create them! She is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, technology executive and has served as Chief Digital Service Officer for the Department of Education during the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2016, she founded tEQuitable. This company includes an independent and confidential platform to address issues of bias, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace. She raised over $2 million dollars for the company, becoming one of the only 34 black women to ever raise $1 million in venture capital!
Researching these amazing women and writing this blog post gave me goosebumps. Their strength, determination and ambition helped them shatter obstacles and pave their own way.
And like I said earlier, this list is not exhaustive. There are so many more incredible black women out there whose stories need to be told! I’m hoping to grow this list over time. So, please share stories of your favorite trailblazers in the comments!