The Peachy Pixel

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Review of Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science by Rachel Swaby

Headstrong by Rachel Swaby - The Peachy Pixel

The disparity between male and female professionals in working in STEM fields is a well known problem in modern American society. According to statistics from the US Department of Commerce, in 2009 women made up 48 % of the overall workforce, but held only 24% of jobs in STEM fields. While the precise reasons for such a wide gap are not entirely understood, there are a number of obvious problems (females in STEM fields earn an average of 12% less than their male counterparts) and a number of obvious solutions to help correct the issue in the years to come. In Headstrong, Rachel Swaby attempts to provide one such solution by highlighting 52 female role models who made significant contributions to all the various STEM fields, many of whom are Nobel winners and trailblazers in their respective areas of interest. 

Headstrong is broken up into 52 short chapters, one for each of the amazing women discussed. This makes it a great choice if you don't have a ton of time to devote to reading. You could easily knock out a few chapter in 10-15 minutes each day. It also makes it a great choice for an audiobook as you can listen to it in short segments.

I consider myself to be fairly well-versed in the history of iconic women as well as in the history of science and medicine. That being said, I was surprised by the fact that I'd heard of very few of the women in Headstrong. The subjects are varied and unique, ranging from affluent and well educated, to poor and entirely self-taught. There are doctors, biologists, chemists and a number who lacked formal titles, but contributed significant work nonetheless. Given the variety, Swaby does a wonderful job of explaining the major works of each of the women within the context of their time, and then demonstrating exactly why the work is significant and relevant. In some cases, the subject matter is highly technical, but Swaby managed to make it accessible. One way in which she accomplished this was to share the personal lives of most the women. Though some may argue that it distracts from the overall effort to shine a light on their contributions to STEM fields, I disagree. In almost every case these women were faced with doubt, adversity and scorn. To truly admire their work requires an understanding of the hardships they faced in order to reach their goals. It also helps to give a social context to their work.

There were times that I was disappointed by the quickness of each chapter, especially in the cases of some of the more obscure women who I'd never heard of. I wanted to know more about them! But, the goal of the book is to compile a broad overview of women in science, so I was prepared for the shortness. It says more about my appetite for history than it does about the book, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who tend to feel the same. Be prepared for a brisk pace and shallow examinations as opposed to anything in great detail. 

I encourage everyone to read this book, but especially women and parents who have daughters. It's an easy read and it is truly inspirational. The only way to overcome the gender disparity in STEM fields is to encourage and support women who are interested in them. Headstrong provides 52 role models who can offer that encouragement. It's worthwhile simply for recognizing pioneering women who have been all but forgotten, as well as reaching out to show women and girls the way forward. 

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science by Rachel Swaby

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science (audiobook)

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Women in STEM: A Gender Gap in Innovation