Women in Tech

Celebrating pioneers: the women who shaped our world

8th April 2024
Sheryl Miles

This article originally appeared in the March'24 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

A blue plaque is steeped in history – starting in the late 1800s, the scheme is now run by the English Heritage, and is a symbol of how history has shaped progress.

To commemorate their 1,000 plaque, the English Heritage marked the monumental milestone by dedicating it to the Women’s Freedom League at the headquarters of the suffragist organisation – a crucial step in acknowledging women’s contribution to society.

As International Women's Day is on 8th March, it is fitting to spotlight the women in STEM whose achievements have been immortalised by these plaques.

Celebrating more women

A blue plaque is the gateway to the stories of extraordinary people, each one representing an important slice of history and a reminder of the dedication of the people who shaped the course of the future.

This year, for the first time, the scheme will honour more individual women than in any previous year, responding to a call for nominations initiated in 2016 by the English Heritage aimed at increasing female representation – an initiative that is now bearing fruit on the streets and buildings of London.

Susan Skedd, Historian and Heritage Consultant for the English Heritage, shared her thoughts, emphasising the crucial role of public nominations in achieving diversity: "Increasing diversity is a concern ... to some extent there are societal and historical prejudices, but there’s also a lack of awareness too … we aren’t experts across every field, so we are reactive to nominations from the public. We need the public to help us."

Also acknowledging the current under-representation of women in tech and engineering within the plaque scheme, Skedd stressed: "It's fair to say we're not doing well in tech and engineering.” Indicating the need for more nominations to address this gap.

Acknowledging progress

The rigorous process for enabling a plaque means that nominees have made significant contributions to their fields. It may be that we’ve not heard of the person behind the innovation, but they have changed our daily lives in some way.

“David Edwards was the pioneer of the microphone. People may not have heard of him – but we all know about microphones. This is where the plaques are dually celebratory and educational,” says Skedd.

Each of the women honoured with a plaque are the figureheads who have allowed the women of today the opportunity to an education, a chance to vote, and to be employed.

Let us look at and remember just some of the women in STEM who have changed the world for us all, and jointly celebrate the English Heritage’s decision to celebrate a record number of women with blue plaques in 2024 than ever before.

The women who shaped the future

Science and technology:

Hertha Ayrton

Ayrton defied societal norms to make significant contributions to science.

As one of the early students at Girton College, she immersed herself in mathematics and her ingenuity led to the creation of the ‘Ayrton fan,’ later used by British troops during World War I to expel poisonous gases from trenches.

Celebrated for her work on the electric arc and the Ayrton fan, she demonstrates the vital contributions of women to physics and engineering with her work leading her to become the first women to be proposed for the membership in the Royal Society.

Rosalind Franklin

Franklin’s research in molecular biology was crucial in understanding DNA's structure, laying the groundwork for genetic science.

Her work was instrumental in the discovery of DNA's double helix structure by Crick and Watson, for which they later received the Nobel Prize.

Franklin's significant role in unravelling the mysteries of DNA has cemented her legacy as a pioneer in the field of molecular biology.

Medicine and healthcare:

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Anderson, a determined pioneer in the field of medicine, faced numerous rejections from universities until she gained admission to Middlesex Hospital in London, where she briefly studied before being excluded.

After legal threats, the Society of Apothecaries permitted her to take their exams, where Anderson became the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor.

Her pursuit of education and professional recognition paved the way for future generations of female doctors.

Dame Ida Mann

Mann’s journey into medicine began unexpectedly and she broke barriers throughout her career.

A leading figure in ophthalmology, Mann eventually became the senior surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital, the first woman to hold the position.

Her techniques revolutionised eye care, and her advocacy for contact lenses led to significant advancements in the field as well as her research on eye diseases among Aboriginal communities which further underscored her dedication to improving global eye health.

Diana Beck

Beck, believed to be the UK's first female neurosurgeon, became a consultant at Middlesex Hospital, and the hospital's first female faculty member where she established its neurosurgical department.

Beck's dedication to her craft led to the creation of innovative surgical techniques, significantly advancing the field of neurosurgery.


Emily Davies

Davies’ most notable achievement was the founding of Girton College, the first residential college offering degree-level education for women.

Her influential writings and activism laid the groundwork for expanding opportunities for women in academia and professional careers.

Frances Mary Buss

Buss, as the founder of the North London Collegiate School, provided middle-class girls with access to quality education previously reserved for boys.

She introduced subjects like Latin and mathematics into the curriculum, challenging traditional gender roles – her approach to education, coupled with her advocacy for public examinations for girls, paved the way for future generations of women to pursue academic and professional endeavours.

Joan Robinson

Robinson challenged conventional economic theories and advocated for social relevance in the discipline.

Her contributions to economics earned her widespread recognition as one of the most influential economic theorists of her time.

Her work continues to inspire economists and policymakers alike – emphasising the importance of economics in shaping a more equitable society.

These women not only made significant contributions to their fields; they also challenged societal constraints, advocating for gender equality and inclusion in STEM. Their achievements, now commemorated by blue plaques are a symbol of hope and progress to future generations.

The Impact of a Blue Plaque

A blue plaque underscores the importance of contributions to society and the STEM fields, with Skedd aptly noting: "It's an interesting process [awarding a blue plaque] ... but it wouldn't have the same impact if we just went into a committee room and decided who we're going to award a plaque to. It's not genuine." This only serves to underscore the public's role in nominating these women and highlights the collective effort to acknowledge and celebrate female achievements.

Skedd remains optimistic about the potential of these plaques to inspire future generations, particularly young women considering careers in STEM. "I think they do have real power," she asserts.

The English Heritage's initiative to commemorate more women with blue plaques is a step forward in correcting historical oversights and celebrating the significant contributions of women to STEM and society at large. By honouring their legacy, we not only pay tribute to their achievements but also inspire ongoing progress and equality in STEM and beyond.

As we reflect on the stories of these talented women, let their dedication, perseverance, and innovations remind us of the transformative power of acknowledging and celebrating female contributions. The blue plaque serves as a symbol of progress, a marker of history, and a source of inspiration, urging us to continue championing the achievements of women in STEM and ensuring their rightful place in history.

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