3 reasons why we need more female inventors

By Marissa Fessenden

During a visit to the Philippines, Ann Makosinski saw a problem she couldn’t ignore.

Self-described as half-Filipino and half-Polish—or “in other words, a fully blooded Canadian”— the teen befriended another young girl in the village where her mother’s family lives. The girls kept up correspondence when Ann returned to her home in Victoria, British Columbia. Later, she was surprised to learn that her new friend failed an entire grade at school. She told Makosinski that after doing chores at home, it was too dark to study because she didn’t have any electricity in her village.

Makosinski wanted to help. She quickly realized that solar cells would be unreliable as a source of energy on cloudy days, but the constantly warm human body gave her an idea. “We are described as 100-watt walking lightbulbs,” she said in a TEDx talk. Ann set out to harness that human energy. Her invention, a flashlight that runs with the heat of your hand, won in her age group at the 2013 Google Science Fair when she was 15 years old. The flashlight uses Peltier tiles, which produce a small electric current when one side is heated and the other side cooled. The palm of your hand provides the heat on the outside of the light and the hollow-core design allows ambient air to cool the other side.

The project wasn’t easy. “It started off with me being very frustrated because I’m not an electrical engineer,” she said. But she turned to the Internet to figure it out. “That is a great resource… use the Internet, you guys.”

Now, she is working on making her device brighter and cheaper so that a final version can be distributed around the world. Her own success has led her to champion the potential power of “many people making small, even tiny contributions” to change the world.

“I am not the best in my class,” she said. “But I think I can solve problems when I see them.”

Makosinski isn’t the only young woman inventor to win prizes with her ideas. Girls are shaking up the perception that science is only for nerdy guys—and they are doing it in creative, surprising ways.

Competitions like the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search offer thousands of dollars in prize money and a global platform for the young winners. YouTube videos and social media ensure that these smart teens’ messages can reach a wide audience.

There’s Elif Bilgin, who won the Voter’s Choice Award and the Scientific American Science in Action prize at the 2013 Google Science Fair for inventing a way to make plastic from banana peels. “In Turkey, we eat a lot of fruit,” she told The starch in banana peels forms the basis of the bioplastic that Elif baked in a mold.

Visible diversity is more than just an issue of fairness.

In this year’s competition, a trio of three 16-year-old girls from Ireland—Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey, and Sophie Healy-Thow—won the Grand Prize for their use of bacteria to aid the germination and growth of cereal crops (corn, wheat, and barley) to address world hunger. While not an invention in the traditional sense of whirring gears, their method is a new way of solving a problem.

Not all inventions are of the “save the world” variety. It’s easy to appreciate the ideas that simply make the world a better place. Take, for example, Mallory Kievman’s quest to rid the world of hiccups by offering “Hiccupops.” Her candies contain a “unique blend of ingredients that trigger a set of nerves in your mouth and throat that are responsible for the hiccup reflex arc,” according to her website.

These inventions are more than just cool and innovative. Because they are the brainchildren of teen girls, they bring into focus the idea that women are important contributors in science and technology.

The world needs girl inventors in a very real way.

For history

First of all, as these teen inventors demonstrate, girls are awesome and creative. We can say that proudly without implying that boys are not. A long list of innovators in human history is populated, at least in the history books, by men. Women, who have dreamt up and implemented many astounding solutions to everyday and not-so-everyday problems, are curiously absent. This is not because their inventions weren’t important—it’s because of a blind spot that even the brightest of us have.

Take, for example, the folks who craft the Google doodles. In Scientific American, Brian Welle and Megan Smith write:

Gloria Steinem said, “Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been an equal part of history.” Along these lines, over the past few years, we discovered some pretty ugly news about our beloved Google Doodles. We had been making these embellishments to the corporate logo on our home page, often in honor of specific people on their birthdays, ever since the company was founded in 1998. For the first seven years, we celebrated exactly zero women. Between 2010 and 2013 we did a little better: women accounted for about 17 percent, men of color 18 percent, women of color an appallingly low 4 percent; 62 percent of the honorees were white men.

We had not noticed the imbalance.

The Web did, however. Gender equality champions did the math and called us out, quite publicly. The Doodle findings held up a mirror to the unconscious biases we had inherited. The problem is far bigger than Google. Women and minorities are not as clearly visible in the science and technology workplace and indeed in our culture in general.

To combat this bias, Google created a training program to help their employees identify and eradicate “biased decision making at work and with our families.” The Google Doodle now has featured women in 49 of the 51 doodles from the start of 2014 though this past summer. It’s also included people of color in about 33 percent of the year’s doodles—and Welle and Smith note there is still room for improvement.

Girls are shaking up the perception that science is only for nerdy guys—and they are doing it in creative, surprising ways.

With a little digging, history provides a lot of inspiration for girls who want to invent. There are plenty of examples (take the inventor of Kevlar—Stephanie Kwolek) of pioneers and game-changers. Here are just a few who we know started inventing as teenagers.

  • Beulah Henry, a descendant of Patrick Henry, born in 1887, has a long list of inventions to her name. She sketched inventions as a little girl and earned her first patent for an ice cream freezer at age 25. She also came up with an umbrella with changeable, snap-on covers. “I invent because I cannot help it,” she told a reporter, according to an article from the Smithsonian. In her day, they called her “the Lady Edison.”
  • Grace Marry Hopper dismantled seven clocks in her parent’s house as a child in an effort to figure out what made them work. Later, she worked as a programmer in the Navy during World War II on the first large-scale commercial computer. She eventually took that leadership to the team that invented the first user-friendly business computer software program, COBAL.

For innovation

Visible diversity is more than just an issue of fairness. Much has been made of the importance of role models in inspiring future generations. If a child can’t observe someone like themselves achieving success, they may (consciously or not) believe that they themselves can’t tackle the challenges necessary to get there. More tangibly, a young person hoping to be something—a scientist, an astronaut, an executive—can benefit from advice and direction from those who have trod those paths before.

Diversity can also drive innovation. When faced with people who hold different perspectives, we tend to work harder and more thoroughly. “Diversity is beneficial for teams precisely because we react differently to people who are different from us. If the end goal is excellence, diversity is an essential ingredient,” writes Fred Guterl in Scientific American.

The world needs girl inventors in a very real way.

“Homogeneous people think the same way,” says Sandy Jen, cofounder of the Web-messaging company Meebo (later scooped up by Google), in a San Jose Mercury News article about the dearth of women in computer science. “There’s not a lot of cross-pollination of ideas. Whether you’re a woman, a man, short, tall, black, white, Asian, whatever, everybody has a different perspective and the more you mix it up, it’s just better.”

Both of the above cited Scientific American articles are from a larger package in the magazine’s September 2014 issue. It arose out of a controversial decision to take down a blog post by Scientific American blogger, biologist D.N. Lee, that brought issues of race and gender to the forefront of the online science community.

In the field of computer science alone, the predicted rise in programming jobs isn’t matching up with the number of students taking computing classes. Part of the problem is the wide gender gap in this field—we need more women to fill those jobs.

For the future

Finally, diversity is important because there are voices who insist there is nothing wrong. In the New York Times, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, professors at Cornell University and founders of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, wrote that “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.” They argue that the reports of sexual harassment are overhyped, give science a bad reputation, and that evidence shows that women and men are approaching parity in degrees earned, salaries, and job satisfaction. While their later point may (happily) be true, that does not negate the reports of sexism and the need for us to do better, argues University of California evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen. “[Once] they claim to find that career progression for women in math heavy fields seems to be going well recently, they imply that the other workplace issues must not be a problem,” he writes.

With a little digging, history can provide a lot of inspiration for girls who want to invent.

Also troublingly, the op-ed seems gloss over how cultural, societal expectations and stereotypes drive children:

As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things. As adolescents, girls express less interest in careers like engineering and computer science. Despite earning higher grades throughout schooling in all subjects—including math and science—girls are less likely to take math-intensive advanced-placement courses like calculus and physics.

The idea that boys are just inherently better or more interested in math is simply not true. Francis Su in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times writes about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first women in history to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics. Among other lines of evidence she argues that “[Girls] raised in cultures with strong traditions in problem-solving competitions do much better in mathematics competitions than girls from cultures without such traditions.”

That’s why broad statements about gender and interests like those made by Ceci and Williams rile some and also emphasize why this Verizon commercial hit the right note:

So for all these reasons, we need girl inventors. These teens are smart, inspired, and inspiring. They are part of the next generation that will drive humans forward and save us from ourselves.

Illustration by Max Fleishman, inspired by Conet