Called the “world’s most beautiful woman” as a Hollywood star in the 1940s, Austrian American actress Hedy Lamarr’s greatest legacy was not her looks, but her inventive brilliance. Determined to help the Allied cause, Hedy and avant-garde composer George Antheil invented a radio-guided torpedo with synchronized anti-jamming frequency hopping.
Lesson Learned: Formal training isn’t always required to be a successful inventor – Without formal training and through dinnertime conversations, Hedy learned what little she needed to advance radio-guided missile technology. Today, female inventors are still drastically underrepresented. A 2016 study found that as of 2010, only 19 percent of all patents had at least one female inventor.
In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysics graduate student at the University of Cambridge, noticed a strange occurrence in the data streaming from the radio telescope she helped build. When the pattern vanished and reappeared a month later, she took careful measurements and brought them to her advisor. She discovered pulsars—rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit radiation—one of the greatest astronomical breakthroughs of the 20th century.
Lesson Learned: Be prepared to confront stereotypes and empower diverse teams— Jocelyn is a firm believer—and living proof—that diversity drives discovery. In a 2013 TEDx talk on diversity and discomfort, she notes that diverse work teams are more creative, more flexible, more robust, and more successful. The proportion of doctorates in STEM awarded to women remain at around 40 percent in the United States. Studies show women leave STEM due to systemic issues, including lack of sponsorship, advancement, and not receiving credit for their ideas.
At age 27, Bessie Coleman realized she wanted to fly but lived in a world that preferred to keep her grounded. Bessie moved from Atlanta, Texas to Chicago in 1915 to escape her home state’s Jim Crow laws. Her desire to be a pilot was sparked by popular accounts of World War I flying aces. Bessie sailed to France––a country with less racism where she could pursue her dream of flying.
Lesson Learned: Be persistent and prepare to go where the opportunity is— Bessie was not only a pilot but an entrepreneur who understood the power of storytelling, and the importance of technical skill and an inventive business model to sustain her passion. She followed her vision and refused to take no for an answer. Despite Bessie’s early example, only 5 percent of today’s U.S. commercial pilots are women.
Margaret led the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team that created the Apollo 11 flight software. Besides working on the historic mission, she coined the term software engineering and helped launch an industry that changed our world.
Lesson Learned: Breakthrough insights can be reached if you empower individuals to thrive holistically—Breakthrough insights can be discovered by accident, and diversity on teams—including working mothers—brings success. Margaret was one of many unsung heroes who worked for NASA in the 1960s. In the past three decades, the percentage of women working in computer-related occupations dropped from 32 percent to 25 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Many women struggle with personal work choices; helping them thrive is critical for innovation.
Each story, dynamic in its own right, features a woman doing extraordinary things, but it’s quite evident that if their communities were more supportive––and even accepting––more could have been achieved. Today, we continue to prioritize the improvement of gender diversity in our organizations to power true inclusive networks. In the U.S., we’re inspired by how far we’ve come as a society and workplace to ensure the development of future generations: 28 percent of scientists are female, 5 percent of pilots are female, 11 percent of engineers are female, and 19 percent of inventors are female. Although we still have a long way to go––women represent 44 percent of all investors in the U.S., 16 percent of startup founders, and 19 percent of all board members––
Susan Penfield is Booz Allen Hamilton’s chief innovation officer and Betty Thompson is the firm’s chief people officer. Susan and Betty will participate in the firm’s first-ever women’s summit, Unstoppable 2019, which will be held on March 14,