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12 books to read about women in STEM

Women in STEM have often been overlooked, but here are some books highlighting their achievements and struggles to encourage future generations.

People employed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics occupations are responsible for major advancements in medicine, computing, communication technologies, aerospace engineering, transportation and infrastructure.

As the demand for skilled professionals in these areas continues to grow, so does the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Throughout history, the work of women in STEM has often been overlooked. Their work has been credited to male colleagues, or they have been pushed out of male-dominated fields completely. Despite the monumental progress that women have made in the workforce and education over the past century, a significant gender gap persists within STEM. One of the reasons young women lose interest in pursuing STEM programs and careers is the lack of women represented in these fields.

Organizations encouraging girls and women to pursue STEM -- such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code -- have helped increase the number of women in the community. According to a report from the U.S. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, from 2011 to 2021, there was a 31% increase in the number of women in the STEM workforce.

With this increase in the number of women in STEM, a trend has developed in books and media covering the topic. Bonnie Garmus' novel Lessons in Chemistry won several literary awards, was a New York Times No. 1 best-seller and was adapted into a series on Apple TV+ in 2023. While the novel follows fictitious chemist Elizabeth Zott in the male-dominated scientific community of the 1960s, it runs parallel to the experiences of many real women in STEM.

Through interviews, records and research, the work of these brilliant women continues to be uncovered, inspiring young women to pursue education and careers in these fields. Here are 12 inspiring nonfiction books to read about women in STEM.

Headstrong

Author: Rachel Swaby

This book highlights 52 often overlooked women who led the way in STEM. Headstrong was written as a response to the New York Times' 2013 obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, in which her scientific achievements were overshadowed by her beef stroganoff recipe and accomplishments as a homemaker. Swaby provides concise profiles of women who contributed to STEM across fields including medicine, genetics, environment, physics, mathematics and technology.

Rise of the Rocket Girls

Author: Nathalia Holt

Nominated for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best History and Biography, this book tells the true story of the women of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the 1940s and 1950s, these female scientists, engineers and mathematicians were also known as "human computers." They made exploration of space and the solar system possible. Along with their achievements, Rise of the Rocket Girls recalls the scientific and gender-based hurdles that these women faced throughout their careers.

The Six

Author: Loren Grush

This is the story of Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid and Rhea Seddon -- America's first female astronauts. NASA selected these women from a pool of more than 8,000 candidates in 1977. This book recounts the challenges these six women faced in their careers with NASA and their contributions to the space program. Author Loren Grush is a space reporter for Bloomberg. The Six was a 2023 Goodreads Choice Awards nominee for Best History and Biography.

Hidden Figures

Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

This book tells the true story of the Black female mathematicians -- then called "human computers" -- who played an essential role in America's space program during the Civil Rights Movement. These women were segregated from their white colleagues. Hidden Figures sheds light on these women and their significant contributions during a turbulent time in American history. Hidden Figures is a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and was made into a 2016 film adaptation of the same name. A young readers' edition of the book has also been published.

Read more here about Black leaders in technology.

The Girls of Atomic City

Author: Denise Kiernan

This is the true story of Oak Ridge, one of the Manhattan Project's secret cities, and the female chemists, physicists, mathematicians and technicians who lived there. Oak Ridge, Tenn., was established in 1942, and the women recruited to work there were known as the "calutron girls." Not made fully aware of the implications of their work and sworn to secrecy by the U.S. government, these women were tasked with enriching uranium for atomic bombs. The Girls of Atomic City was an instant New York Times best-seller and a 2014 APSA Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award winner.

Code Girls

Author: Liza Mundy

Code Girls is another story about the brilliant women who helped the Allied forces win World War II. During the war, the U.S. military recruited more than 10,000 women to serve as codebreakers. Their work played a role in ending the war, saving countless lives. Written by award-winning journalist Liza Mundy, this book was researched and based partly on interviews with surviving "code girls."

Lab Girl

Author: Hope Jahren

This memoir by American geochemist Hope Jahren recounts her life and journey with science. Jahren has set up laboratories and embarked on adventures across the United States and beyond, studying soils, plants and more. Jahren has been recognized as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards, and Lab Girl has been nominated for and won several literary awards.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Author: Robin Wall Kimmerer

This collection of essays bridges Indigenous traditions and scientific perspectives. Kimmerer is a botanist and professor of environmental and forest biology. She is also a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer blends these identities in her book, which is a mix of ecological science and Indigenous wisdom. First published in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass was named one of the Best Essay Collections of the Decade by Literary Hub in 2019, and it continues to make it onto best-seller lists a decade after its publication.

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

Author: Kurt W. Beyer

This book is a biography of American computer scientist Grace Hopper. Hopper was a pioneer in computer science -- the inventor of compilers and developer of the COBOL language. This book focuses on her work, which paved the way for the user-friendly PCs of today. Beyer paints a picture of an influential and respected woman who overcame personal and professional hurdles in the male-dominated postwar computer industry.

Broad Band

Author: Claire L. Evans

Claire Evans uncovers the untold history of the women who made modern technology possible. Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler and Stacy Horn are among the women whose stories are highlighted in this book. Covering women's involvement in areas such as broadband, social networking and computer programming, this book also explores gender disparities within the tech industry. It was a 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards nominee for Best Science and Technology.

Women in White Coats

Author: Olivia Campbell

This book tells the story of three pioneering female physicians: Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake. These women were among the first to become physicians in England during the 19th century, a time when medicine was practiced almost exclusively by men. They led the way for other women, changed the way women were treated as patients and ultimately changed healthcare as it was known. Women in White Coats was a New York Times best-seller.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

This historical nonfiction book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and how she unknowingly had an invaluable role in cancer research in the 1950s. Lacks, a Black woman, was a poor tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge or consent during treatment for cervical cancer. These cells became the first "immortal" human cells and were grown in culture by cancer researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her cells still exist today and are known as HeLa cells. In this book, award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot uncovers the legacy of Lacks' HeLa cells and the effects of this history on her family and living relatives today.

Ava DePasquale is a freelance content writer with a degree in professional writing from Fitchburg State University.

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