As an electrical engineer, I always knew a female Jedi would use laser technology to help crack the glass ceiling wide open. I just never knew that woman would be a brilliant Canadian, eh?
Donna Strickland recently became one of only three women ever to win the Nobel Prize for Physics. Ironically, this happened the day after a senior scientist at CERN was suspended for saying that physics was invented and built by men. Before Strickland’s pioneering work, lasers couldn’t be cranked up to high intensities without destroying the material used to create them. Her technique for solving this problem has become the standard for high intensity lasers, enabling huge medical breakthroughs including laser surgery. Enlightening as this situation is, we still have a long way to go beyond this new crack in the glass ceiling.
Of the 928 Nobel Laureate Prizes, only 5% have been awarded to women, and many discoveries have been misattributed to male colleagues . Our explosions in technological advancements have often been tied to women rapidly joining the workforce. Unfortunately, many women have not been credited for their scientific achievements, especially at times in history when they couldn’t vote, own property, or obtain loans. It is only now that we have begun to posthumously credit female pioneers such as Rosalind Franklin who discovered DNA; Jocelyn Bell Burnell who uncovered pulsars; Lise Meitner who contributed to the development of nuclear fission; and Esther Lederberg who determined that viruses can infect bacteria.
It’s not just the Nobel Prize. The famous actress Hedy Lamarr did not receive the patent for her frequency hopping technology that is now the basis for all wifi and cell phone devices, including bluetooth headphones and GPS. The estimated market value of this technology is more than $30B, which went into the pockets of the American military instead of Ms. Lamarr. Earlier this year, Jennifer Doudna was also defeated in her patent filing for her discovery of CRISPR, a unique method of gene editing technology that will similarly generate billions in revenue. Instead it was awarded to a male team at the Broad Institute, supported by MIT and Harvard. So now that we’ve shot a light into the scientific universe, how do burst through the equality wall?
Let’s call this: Operation: Blast A Laser Hole Into The Glass Ceiling.
Phase One: Pay For The Intellectual Property!
We need to take a long hard look at the U.S. Patent Office, and why women are struggling to get the credit and financial reward for their intellectual property. This is arguably more pivotal for women to achieve equality than the fight for fair wages, particularly given that the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs and startup founders, come from a STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) background. If we want to shatter this glass ceiling whereby less than 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs, Venture Capital recipients, and world leaders are female, we need women to receive proper credit, resources, and financial rewards for their scientific breakthroughs.
Phase Two: Measure That Resources Are Allocated Fairly.
Nancy Hopkins is a brilliant rare disease researcher and professor of biology at MIT. When she was starting her zebrafish colony, she needed more space for her aquariums. She went to the powers that be at MIT and was told that she had to make do with the space she had. So she grabbed her tape measure, and went to all the laboratories to measure their square footage. She organized this data in a scientific report broken down by gender. On average, the male researchers had five hundred more square feet than the women, and that was just the group leaders. She then published the data in MIT’s tech magazine, and the NYTimes picked up the story and put it on its front page. Hopkins was subsequently invited to meet with Hillary Clinton at the White House, and most importantly she got the space she needed for her research. Her tape measure now sits in the MIT museum.
Phase Three: Take Achievement Selfies.
As women, we are often so busy doing the work that we forget to be our own publicists and champions. As a gender stereotype, women make duck face selfies, while men humble brag and achievement tweet their way to social media fame. This could not be more wrong. It is because of this stereotype that male scientists are published more often than are women. In fact, male entrepreneurs like Jobs, Musk, and Zuckerberg have every operating system update they release celebrated like it’s the Second Coming. It’s time for women to apply their selfie skills to a new social media club. If you are a woman in STEM, I want to see your best science achievement selfies. Tag targeted press, blogs, and science journals with the same gusto of a Silicon Valley bro, and if you hashtag or tag @GoBeyondSTEM, we’ll make sure to shout it off the glass rooftop ourselves.
Strickland’s discovery and its application for laser eye surgery technology enables us to see better in a physical sense. If we let it, her Nobel Prize achievement will help us see better in a metaphorical sense as well. Thank you, Donna, for helping cut through our glass ceiling with your Chirped Pulse Amplification technology. Congratulations for this contribution to science, equality, and beyond.