6 Awesome Books About Women Kicking Ass In STEM

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Header by Rory Midhani


Hello seedlings! Are you enjoying the last few weeks of summer? I’m hoping to make it to the beach one more time before the weather turns cold. On my last trip, I read a political memoir. It was good, but I’m thinking something sciencier next time.

Whatever your profession, if you’re digging that vibe, here are some suggestions for you!


henrietta lax

1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gives an unflinching look into the generational effects of human research on marginalized groups in America — specifically, on Henrietta Lacks (unknowing originator of the famous HeLa cell line) and her family. The ethical implications of her case are extremely interesting, and I believe Skloot’s account should be mandatory reading for anyone touching research that involves human beings.

My only wish is that this book had been written by a woman of color. Skloot tried really hard to humanize Henrietta, but some of the narrative choices made while describing Henrietta’s family and hometown were just… I don’t know. There was this constant contrast being drawn between the author’s whiteness and her subjects’ Blackness. I found it distracting, and it left me with a nagging sense that, decades later, Henrietta was still getting the short end of the stick. But you can decide for yourself, if you read it!


Silhouette of a sparrow

2. Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

This short and sweet piece of YA historical fiction follows a teenage girl as she falls in love with both ornithology and another teenage girl. In 1926! In Minnesota! With some truly lovely storytelling! What more could you ask for?


pioneer programmer

3. Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World by Jean Jennings Bartik

Pioneer Programmer is the firsthand account of Jean Jennings Bartik, one of the five women who programmed the world’s first electronic computer, the ENIAC. The book corrects a small but important piece of history that has been repeatedly misreported over the years, and it’s not at all nice about doing it. It puts the asshole men who wrongfully stole the credit from women right back in their place. Which I love.

Bartik died in 2011, and I’m so thankful she was able to set the record straight before she passed. The writing can be a bit dry at times, but it’s worth it for the spurts of spite and tales of glory.


lab girl

4. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

We’ve talked about this, but I’m mentioning it here again. It’s just that good!

Hope Jahren’s stories detailing her experiences as a geobiologist/woman/tree-whisperer/badass are practically poetry. If you want to read words from someone with a true passion for scientific learning, this book is for you.


lean-in

5. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I didn’t read this book when it came out because I’d heard so many negative things about it on the feminist internet. And you know what? A lot of the criticisms brought up are true — the advice in this book definitely doesn’t broadly apply to all working women. You know who it does broadly apply to, though? Women working in STEM.

This book turned out to be super applicable to me and the things I’ve experienced professionally. I was surprised at how much I liked it and related to the material. I didn’t agree with every word on every page, but I’m glad I read Sandberg’s ideas and thought through them on my own. There’s a lot of solid advice in this book for women seeking career advancement in STEM. Even for women not working in STEM, I always think it’s good practice to love/hate things based on firsthand knowledge rather than secondhand gossip, you know? So if you’ve avoided Sandberg’s infamous screed for reasons similar to mine, maybe give it a shot!


sally ride

6. Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr

I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my list. This biography came out a couple years ago, after the public became aware, following Ride’s death, that she’d been in a same-sex partnership for the past 27 years. Sherr was one of Ride’s friends, and apparently gets “exclusive access to Ride’s partner, her former husband, her family, and countless friends and colleagues” to cover ground that hadn’t previously been written about. Ground that I think would be of great interest to me, and probably you.

If anyone else has read this one, I’d love to hear if this is good or weird!


Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 211 articles for us.

19 Comments

        • Well, a tech you may be, but you still have more experience working in a library than I do (because I have zero). You’re doing cataloging, huh? I’m about to take a metadata class starting next week. I’m excited because I hope I can learn to catalog research data properly. Ideally, I want to be a STEM librarian, a data librarian, or a scholcomm librarian at a SLAC. Anyway, keep being awesome!

  1. I just started taking a computer science course at the university where I work, and out of 50 or so students in the class, only FIVE are women. Also the professor kept only using the pronoun “he” to refer to computer programmers: “With the invention of Java, a programmer could compile HIS code into bytecode once, and then HE could run it on any computer.”

    So basically what I’m saying is that book by the ENIAC programmer sounds like everything I want in life right now, thank you for the recommendation!

    • When I got my bachelors in electrical engineering, there were about 50 of us in the program that graduated the same year as me. Only three were women, and one of them (me) was an at-the-time closeted trans woman. Now I work at a small company of about 15 engineers, and two of us are women.

      The gender skew in STEM is absolutely unbelievable and depressingly self-reinforcing. I really wish there was something obvious that could be done, but the culture in STEM fields has become some predominately masculine that many men don’t even realize there’s a problem and instead think that it’s just that women don’t like or aren’t good at STEM.

  2. Sally Ride is a really good book- as a wannabe astronaut, I very much enjoyed it. There were a few cringe-inducing moments- like when the author briefly inquired with Dr. Ride’s ex-husband about their sex life- but for the most part, it was a really thoughtful, touching account of her life.

  3. As a primatologist I feel obligated to represent, so I recommend that Straddlers check out Dian Fossey’s book Gorillas in the Mist (not the movie, it’s dumb and doesn’t have much to do with science – not Sigourney Weaver’s fault, but she couldn’t save it). Aside from Dian Fossey, primatology has actually been dramatically shaped by women in a way most other subspecialties in the sciences have not. There have been many fantastic trailblazers, so go forth and read the work of female primatologists!

  4. The Sally Ride book is excellent. Its one of the only books I brought with me instead of putting into storage when I moved.

    That being said, I HATED Lean In and I’m a woman in STEM. Then again, I told my friend the other day if I ever have to sit through a “woman in science” event that is really just a “motherhood and science” event ever again, I would punch the organizer in the face. I felt like a lot of the book (and its been years since I read it so my memories are a little cloudy) was about how to balance work and family and “have it all” but I don’t have kids and don’t even know if I want them?

  5. I haven’t read it yet, but Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures might be a good one too and is being made into a movie with Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.

    I loved Lean In. It doesn’t apply to all working women but nor do any business books by men, ever. And yeah the book focuses more on what individual women can do rather than changing the whole world, but there’s so much pressure put on that book to be everything to everyone, when there’s a lot there already that I really liked.

  6. You should have included “Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics”.
    Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was a pioneer of nuclear physics and co-discoverer, with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, of nuclear fission. Braving the sexism of the scientific world, she joined the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry and became a prominent member of the international physics community. Of Jewish origin, Meitner fled Nazi Germany for Stockholm in 1938 and later moved to Cambridge, England. Her career was shattered when she fled Germany, and her scientific reputation was damaged when Hahn took full credit—and the 1944 Nobel Prize—for the work they had done together on nuclear fission. Ruth Sime’s absorbing book is the definitive biography of Lise Meitner, the story of a brilliant woman whose extraordinary life illustrates not only the dramatic scientific progress but also the injustice and destruction that have marked the twentieth century.

  7. Another really great book about women in science is “Rise of the Rocket Girls” by Natalia Holt! It’s about the original human “computers” in the early days of JPL and how women were really the driving force behind space exploration. It is really inspiring!

  8. After seeing it on this list I got Silhouette of a Sparrow from my library and I swear while reading it I felt like it was written specifically for my past self (totally obsessed with birds and obliviously queer). My point is thank you thank you thank you for telling me about this book, I loved it!

  9. May I suggest a couple more:

    1. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr.
    Accessible biography of the last great mathematician of the Hellenic world and the only woman.

    2. Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution.
    This is the story of two women born in the 18th century who made considerable contributions (in Mdme Du Chatelet’s case this includes providing the definitive translation of Newton’s Principia into French.)

  10. May I suggest a couple more:

    1. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr.
    Accessible biography of the last great mathematician of the Hellenic world and the only woman.

    2. Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution.
    This is the story of two women born in the 18th century who made considerable contributions (in Mdme Du Chatelet’s case this includes providing the definitive translation of Newton’s Principia into French.)

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