January 30, 2024

Quick, Can You Name Three Famous Female Scientists or Mathematicians?

How can we bring more women into the STEM field, and why does the gender gap matter?

This article originally appeared on katiecouric.com.

Pop quiz: Take a second and name the most famous scientists, mathematicians, or engineers you can think of. There’s Albert Einstein, of course. Stephen Hawking. Thomas Edison. Go back a few centuries and you’ve got Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo. What do all of these people have in common? They’re all geniuses…and they’re also all men.

Does that mean that men are just more “math-brained”? Of course not. In fact it’s been proven that there are no cognitive biological differences between genders when it comes to math. But in the past decade there’s only been a three point increase in women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — collectively known as STEM — from 32 to 35 percent. The reason why significantly fewer women work in STEM is complicated: There’s gender bias, lack of opportunity, and outdated cultural expectations, to name a few. But there’s also a lack of recognition for the women who have already made major contributions to these fields. That’s a major problem, because in the words of civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Gina Costa, PhD, is one woman who could inspire any girl curious about STEM: She’s the Vice President of Product Development, Precision Oncology at Exact Sciences, a molecular diagnostics company focused on early cancer detection. Throughout her career, Costa has executed the commercialization of four independent next-generation genomic sequencing platforms — put more simply, her work has been revolutionary in helping doctors understand genes that impact health and disease.

While Costa is now a heavy hitter at Exact Sciences, as a kid, she didn’t even know girls were allowed to work in STEM. After her grandfather died, she decided she wanted to work in healthcare, but didn’t know any women in the field: “I remember talking with my father about wanting to be a nurse,” she says. “He asked why not a doctor, and I said, because girls are nurses and boys are doctors. I had never seen a female doctor. When he told me there was no reason why I couldn’t be a doctor, it was an epiphany for me.”

Costa then decided to seek out her own role models. She remembers learning about Rosalind Franklin PhD, who made major breakthroughs in biophysics and molecular biology in the 1940s: “Her initial research led to the discovery of the structure of DNA, and her later research efforts defined the molecular structure of viruses,” says Costa. When you consider that Costa grew up to work in genomic sequencing, it’s not hard to understand why we need to teach more kids about Rosalind Franklin — and trailblazing women like her.

Ana Hooker, SVP and Chief Laboratory Officer at Exact Sciences, agrees that the best way to get more young women interested in STEM is to celebrate the historic contributions women have already made in STEM — and are still making today. “A lot of kids know that Marie Curie was a famous female scientist, and that’s sort of it,” says Hooker. “If you’re not learning about these women in school, then you won’t know they exist.” (Hooker suggests normalizing gender parity in STEM by getting kids to read books like Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky.)

As a leader in STEM, Hooker chooses to make herself as visible as possible, so women in her field see that success is possible: “I don’t just sit at my desk,” says Hooker. “I walk the halls and visit the labs. I talk to the employees, especially the younger women. I want it to be totally normal to see a female STEM executive.”

Abby Ngampongsai, VP of Laboratory Automation and Services at Exact Sciences, also feels a responsibility to show young women that there’s already a thriving community of women making waves in STEM: “At Exact Sciences, we actively seek out female scientists and engineers,” she says proudly. “I’ve been able to attend career fairs at schools to discuss and showcase my work. Educating and empowering young girls to see what a career in STEM actually looks like goes a long way in forming their future.”

The impact of women like Costa, Hooker, and Ngampongsai openly sharing their talents and experiences in STEM can’t be overstated. A lack of diversity in STEM doesn’t just hurt women — it’s bad for everyone. Hooker explains: “If you’re creating a product, it’s probably not only going to be used by men. That’s why you need a diverse group making decisions. Including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community in executive roles provides a more nuanced understanding of what the general public wants and needs.” She also notes that without creating a culture of acceptance, the STEM field robs itself of potential talent: “If a brilliant woman doesn’t think she can get a seat at the table at a company, why would she want to work there? Then that company loses that talent and the ideas that come with her.”

STEM companies also have a responsibility to actively seek out diverse candidates; Hooker makes this a priority at Exact Sciences, where 50 percent of her team is female. She explains that even if only a specific demographic of people is applying for jobs, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other brilliant STEM candidates out there — you just have to do a little more work to find them. “We recruit and advertise for positions in places where we know there are women and people of color,” she says. “We seek out diverse students while they’re still in high school, and recruit at colleges with a higher concentration of underrepresented candidates. If you want to find great talent, you have to be intentional.”

Hooker’s goal is to get to a point where these conversations about the STEM gender gap are obsolete. “I want diversity to be so ingrained in STEM that people don’t even notice it anymore,” she says. Ngampongsai believes the way to make that happen is to encourage all kids to figure out what they’re passionate about and to give it their all: “Be true to yourself and what you love, and do good work,” she says. “Then people will have no choice but to respect you, no matter who you are.”