Women in STEM: the Past, Present and …

Happy Women’s Day!

As women moving into the present and future STEM spheres, it’s only fitting to look back at some of the women who have left their marks on the world, as well as some women who continue to pave the path for us moving into the future. When we think of famous historical scientists and pioneers, the first people that normally pop into your head are probably men. So here is a little, and by no means exhaustive, list of some women who have changed the face of STEM.

Let’s start off with some people you might already know..

Ada Lovelace


The daughter of an English poet, Augusta Ada King was a mathematician and is most widely known today for her contributions to the beginnings of computing. Her work with Charles Babbage on a mechanical calculator called ‘The Analytical Engine’, is considered to be one of the first computers designed. In 1843 she published a paper that explained both how the engine worked and its future potential to do more than just the calculations of the day.


Marie Curie


Marie Curie (Maria Sklodowska) was a Polish chemist and physicist noted for her pioneering work on radioactivity. She discovered two elements (radium and polonium) using her own methods of isolating isotopes. She also made contributions to World War I, where her radiography units were used in field hospitals.

She remains the only women to have won two Nobel prizes, and the only person to have won in two scientific (physics and chemistry) fields.


Katherine Johnson


You may have seen Hidden Figures, the incredible movie about the African-American women who worked behind the scenes at NASA. Katherine Johnson was an incredible mathematician and one of the first people to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. Her time at NASA was spent calculating flight trajectories for many of NASA’s missions including module flights to Mercury and the Moon. When NASA first introduced the electronic computers, she was asked to confirm that the computing was correct.


Rosalind Franklin


This is someone you may have heard of in your life science classes! Franklin was a chemist who was an integral part of understanding the structure of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Her contributions to x-ray diffraction imagery is what led to the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, the discovery won a Nobel prize, but at the time, Franklin was not credited for the groundwork that led to the award.


Jane Goodall


Jane Goodall is a primatologist and anthropologist who is described as the world’s leading expert on Chimpanzees. She has spent 60 years studying chimps and analysing their behaviour, many times correcting previous misunderstandings and assumptions about them. She is also the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute which is a global initiative to tackle environmental and wildlife.


Sylvia Earle


A National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and record holder for the deepest walk on the sea floor – for which she is nicknamed “Her Deepness.” Earle is an internationally recognised marine biologist, ocean conservationist and is the first female to lead the National Geographic Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. She is also the Chair and Founder of Mission Blue, a group that raises awareness and protects biodiversity around the globe by protecting areas they call ‘Hope Spots’. Earle continues to lead expeditions to many of these spots with research teams and supported by large and small companies. In 1998 she was also named Time magazine’s first Hero for the Planet.


Valentina Tereshkova


Tereshkova was the first and youngest female cosmonaut to have flown a solo space mission. In 1963, she spent 3 days in space, in which she orbited the earth 48 times. It took another 20 years before a second Russian cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya was the next woman to take off into space.


“A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.”

Valentina Tereshkova

Wangarĩ Muta Maathai


A Kenyan activist, Maathai was a strong fighter for environmental conservation and women’s rights. Her environmental activism began the Green Belt Movement, an NGO that aimed to prevent deforestation, provide income, and prevent soil erosion. This movement was based on empowering women through training in communities on ways to use the resources and develop their trades to increase economic development in rural Kenya.

Her passion and involvement in sustainable development made her the first African woman to with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.


But what about closer to home? There are so many people out and about in the world who have contributed their knowledge and shared their passion. Whilst achievements of past and far afield can be celebrated, we’d also like to share with you some women who continue to impact the STEM space in South Africa.

Aisha Pandor


The CEO and a co-founder of SweepSouth, Africa’s first online platform for organising and paying for home cleaning services. As one of the women in a small pool of black, female, tech startups both at home and abroad, her company is the first SA startup in the 500 startups accelerator located in Silicon Valley.

What she studied: BSc with a PhD in Human Genetics and a Postgrad Business Admininistration at UCT

Some accolades: South African Women in Science Award, Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans (2012), Forbes Africa-a top African millennial, Price Check Female Entrepreneur of the year and Black Entrepreneur Award (2016) 


Isabelle Ansorge


The Head of the Oceanography Department at the University of Cape Town, she was the first woman to graduate with a PhD from the department. Her research focusses on ocean dynamics in the Indian, Atlantic and Southern Oceans

A program initiative of hers was a program, called SEAmester, that encourages and facilitates interaction between young South African scientists, lecturers, and field specialists in a practical environment.


Hema Vallabh


A chemical engineer (we’re big fans!) who founded WomEng, an NPO helping a new generation of female engineers achieve leadership, mentorship, and guidance. She also co-founded WomHub an  organisation that takes on gender equality programs across Africa, South America, and Asia.

Some accolades: One of South Africa’s Most Influential Women in Engineering, a “change-maker” in the Oprah Magazine, one of the Top 200 Young South Africans and chosen as one of 27 women for the FORTUNE Global Women’s Exchange.

She has received numerous other accolades and is most definitely an inspiration to the young engineers that look up to her as a role model.


Senamile Masango


With an undergraduate degree in engineering, Senamile is currently pursuing a PhD in Nuclear Physics at UWC. The first and only African woman, to partake-in an African led experiment, in a group at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). Senamile is also the research team leader for SA at BRICS Youth Energy Agency and one of the top 200 young South Africans in Science and Technology.


Mamokgethi Phakeng


The current Vice Chancellor at UCT, she is a globally known, educator and researcher, being the first black South African woman to earn a PhD in mathematics education.

She was the first female president of the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (Amesa) and has been awarded the Order of the Baobab for her contribution to science and South African research. Additionally in 2018 she was invited to speak at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Brazil.

“She aims to strive for transformation in academic spaces, encourage innovation in mathematics teaching models and to empower black women in the STEM educational space” – and she always looks fabulous doing it!


Who are some women that you would have liked to have seen on this list? We’d love to hear your thoughts- leave us a comment on our social media pages or share this post on yours!