Gertrude Elion graduated from NYU with a Master of Science degree in 1941. As a woman, she was unable to secure a legitimate laboratory position until affects of World War II created a shortage of chemists. She got a job conducting quality control for a major food company—it wasn’t research, but it was something. A couple of years later, with her foot in the door so to speak, she was finally given a research position with Dr. George Hitchings at Burroughs-Wellcome Research Laboratories. 

Burroughs-Wellcome would later become GlaxoSmithKline, and during the course of her career, Elion would help to develop the first treatment for leukemia and the first immunosuppressant for organ transplants, among other discoveries. In 1988, she was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. 

One of the innovators of modern medicine was almost confined to teaching or being an unpaid lab assistant. Decades later, American women certainly don’t face such outright discrimination, but disparities remain. 

According to the 2010 National Science Foundation report of Science & Engineering Indicators, women remain underrepresented in STEM fields but to a lesser degree than in the past. More specifically, the STEM gap is most apparent in the fields of engineering, computer sciences, and mathematics, where men continue to earn the vast majority of degrees. In fact, the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women decreased every year between 2000 and 2008, from 28.0% in 2000 to 17.7% in 2008. Furthermore, women holding STEM degrees are less likely than men to find jobs in STEM careers. Although women accounted for 40% of those with science and engineering degrees in 2006, only 27% of those pursuing careers in science and engineering were female in the following year.

Apart from obvious reasons of equality and innovative capacity, why does the STEM gap matter? 

Quite simply, women holding jobs in STEM fields get paid more and are less likely to be unemployed. To give you an idea, half of all workers in STEM fields had annual incomes of at least $70,600 in 2007, more than double the average annual earnings of the entire U.S. workforce, and in September 2009, at the height of the recent recession, the unemployment rate for those in STEM fields was only 5.5%, much lower than the national average of 9.7%. 

At Girls Inc. we’re doing our part to overcome the STEM gap. We hope to get girls excited about STEM fields with Girls Inc. Operation SMART®, a program that empowers girls to explore math and science fields by engaging them in relevant, interesting activities to discover the world around them, and with Lunch Bunch, a mentoring program that matches girls with female professionals and empowers girls to explore a variety of interesting careers and set their own educational and career goals. 

How do you inspire the girls in your life to be excited about nontraditional fields?

Gertrude Elion autobiography
Science Foundation – Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010