Erasing Women from Innovation History

Recently I went to a conference featuring some amazing women in science. There was, literally, the rocket scientist who talked about the exciting challenges of sending her work into space. Robotics experts talking about the current and future uses of drones and advances in surgery. Biologists talking about new therapies. So many interesting and exciting innovations.

I started to think about the many interesting and exciting women in innovation. But, then I started thinking about three books I read recently and wondered whether these women would be erased from the history of innovation like so many before them. Women (of all colors) have been present at all of the important technical milestones of our country, but we keep getting erased. We see all male panels at conferences and all male teams receiving venture capital funding. We are constantly sent the message that women are not involved in science when, in fact, women get the majority of PhDs in many scientific fields such as biology, academic medicine and others.

At the conference where there was such a display of achievement by women, I kept thinking about three books I recently read that highlighted the erasure of women from scientific accomplishments.

Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly are two books about the computers who created the calculations for all of our country’s rocket and space programs. This is back when computers were people, not machines, and almost all of them were women.

The first person to know the precise moment when our country’s first rocket broke out of Earth’s orbit and into outer space was a woman because she was doing the calculations of the trajectory by hand.

As someone with a degree in quantitative economics, I am humbled to think of the incredible, complex calculations that most of these women made with paper and pencil.

The two stories are companion pieces. Rocket Girls chronicles the experience of mostly white women working at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. Hidden Figures tells the story of the black women on the east coast who worked in Langley, VA for NASA . Hidden Figures will soon be a movie.

Saving Bletchley Park by Sue Black is another book chronicling female computers who helped crack the German code during World War II. The shroud of secrecy around this military operation hid the accomplishments of these women for decades.

Why did the authors need to write these books? Women were systematically erased from the history of not just the space program but innovation. Black women were erased even further because, as the author of Hidden Figures described, few photographs existed of the black women at work at Langley. In her research she painstakingly went through employment records and official documents to create her own estimate of the huge number of women whose work was essential to this innovation.

Astronaut John Glenn was quoted as saying that he was not going to be ready for his mission to space until his computer said he was ready. He viewed her role as essential to his mission, but history erased her and her colleagues.

It can feel like climbing up the side of a slippery mountain. When we get a foothold and move forward, we end up sliding back down. Often, the spotlight shines brightly on one or two examples, which also fuels the mythology that there were few women, instead of hundreds.

When the experiences of these women are erased, we are treated as though we have to fight to have our seat at the table. When, in fact, we were sitting there all along.

Photo: Aeronautical Engineer Christine Darden holds a model plane in the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. (Source: HiddenFigures.com)

Barbara Clarke