Girl Power:

How Feminine Qualities Drive Discovery

Women have often been excluded from STEM-related studies and careers. In the U.S., although women hold 47% of all jobs, they hold only 24% of jobs in STEM fields. But stories like that of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell show that even when women excel in science and technology fields, they are often overlooked: The British astrophysicist was recently awarded the Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for her seminal work on pulsars as a graduate student–forty-four years after her male advisor received the Nobel Prize for the discovery without a single mention of Burnell. In fact, a closer look at what it takes to make these amazing discoveries reveals that qualities typically associated with women are often the driving forces behind such breakthroughs.


Women are often considered to be more nurturing than their male counterparts, presumably because of the association with motherhood and family, but this characteristic is often interpreted as a weakness. On the contrary, having empathy has a wide range of benefits, such as promoting open-mindedness, decreasing hasty assumptions when examining a problem, and improving personal and cognitive flexibility, just to name a few. These critical thinking skills that are so closely related to empathy allow someone who possesses them to be able to look at a problem in a new way and consider new options–a crucial part of the process of discovery.


Women are often thought of as being gentle, and therefore weak. But gentleness is a quiet strength. When  someone knows that if they make a mistake, they’ll be berated and shamed, they are much more likely to stick to what they know and not take any chances. But discoveries can only be made when we get out of our comfort zones and take a risk! When women lead with gentleness, the people around them will be more likely to try new things, because they know if they fail, it won’t be the end of the world or their career!. This courageous team effort is what leads to breakthroughs.


Women are known to be active community builders. An international group of female leaders made the news earlier this year by advocating for the advancement of women and other minorities in STEM. Strong networks lend themselves to collaboration, a necessary catalyst for new discoveries that has been well established in science and research fields. Women, as community builders, also play a pivotal role in creating environments that support, promote, and motivate individual growth – the building blocks for humans driving scientific discovery.


When working on a new project, it is important to believe in it wholeheartedly, but it is equally important to know when to ask for help and to be able to take stock of what you’re doing. One study of men and women in the workplace found that at the beginning of their careers, men and women are equally as likely to to ask for feedback. But around 40 years old, men begin to stop asking for feedback, while women continue to seek out a second opinion. This ability to recognize when to ask for help is crucial in the process of actually making a discovery, and not just banging your head against the wall.

Of course, these qualities in themselves are only part of a stereotype of women, and not every woman is a master of them. But regardless of gender, qualities often found in female leadership, are critical pieces in the process of discovery. Want to get inspired by women pioneers in science? I highly recommend this read


Chelsea Pennington

Chelsea Pennington

Chelsea is an educator at the Museum of Boulder, where she helps people of all ages explore the story of Boulder and its history. She loves stories, whether they take the form of fictional books, museum exhibits, or science discoveries! She can be found online at Penn & Paper, where she helps readers and writers discover and create life-changing stories.

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