Elissa Barnard reports on Jo Napier’s artwork that honours female science and technology pioneers and she encourages readers to contact Napier to share stories of other historic women in STEM.
Jo Napier wants young girls and women to see that “STEM is women’s work.” Her portraits honour female pioneers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
“When a young girl closes her eyes to conjure up an astronomer or physicist who did something amazing, I’d like her to see a female face,” says artist and journalist, Napier.
The Halifax native created her first Great Women of STEM portrait show after her daughter, Julia, 12, expressed interest in becoming an inventor or engineer. “(Julia) wanted to clean out our coat closet and turn it into a science lab, and I thought it would be great to decorate it with images of historic women scientists. I couldn’t think of any besides Marie Curie. It was embarrassing. And I decided to let my ignorance be my inspiration.”
As a journalist and author, Napier interviewed technology leaders for PBS and Discovery Channel documentaries and for national newspaper columns, and profiled IT pioneers for a book, Technology With Curves: Women Reshaping the Digital Landscape (HarperCollins).
“I knew contemporary women shaping technology but – besides Curie – I couldn’t come up with the names or faces of female STEM pioneers.”
Research led her to “an amazing array” of STEM women – among them Annie Jump Cannon, the Dover, Delaware, native whose star classification system is still used today; Dorothy Hodgkin, the British crystallographer whose determination of molecular structures led to life-saving drugs; and Michigan’s Marie Tharp, who played a major role in mapping the ocean floor.
At her Great Women of STEM portrait show, Napier found a woman standing in front of her portrait of Canadian Elsie MacGill, the world’s first female airplane designer, gently crying. Napier recalls, “I asked her why she was in tears. ‘I never knew any of this,’ she told me. It just hit her: her life – her academic, and professional choices – might have been different, if she’d known STEM paths paved by women.”
Through her company, Great Women Productions, Napier and her creative team produce portrait collections and projects designed to educate and inspire young women and girls. “Today’s scientists and physicists and engineers stand on the shoulders of these great women. Women’s history is half the history. Girls, and boys, should know these women and their work,” says Napier, who thinks of her portraits as “little history lessons for future STEM stars.”
There is increasingly more research into the barriers women face in STEM, from a decreasing lack of oral class participation, compared to boys, as they age from 6 to 14, to gender bias in scientific research funding.
In March, 2019, an online poll of 1,511 Canadians commissioned by the non-profit group Girls Who Code asked participants how many women scientists or engineers they could name. More than half of those polled said: “None.”
Napier recently asked a class of 50 kids – boys and girls – to draw crayon portraits of how they envisioned a variety of scientists and inventors, after sharing stories of their different accomplishments. She did not reveal the gender of the scientists and inventors.
Then, she tacked their paintings on the wall. “Out of 50, two kids drew female characters …and the group was literally screaming in surprise – and mock protest – when I told them that girls did all the things I’d told them about: figured out what stars are made of, created the rocket fuel that ‘saved the day for the USA’… they thought it was great, and really surprising, to learn that all these great stories, STEM stories, are women’s stories.”
“Our world socializes girls to think that they’re not quite as able as boys to tackle subjects like math and physics. We need to gather and share these stories to inspire young women to enter STEM professions. Women live different lives than men and they do science differently. They don’t operate in silos. They bring themselves – and their greater lives – to the table. The planet is on a tricky trajectory – we need all our ingenuity in the mix…and all hands on deck.”
Hanging in Napier’s studio is her favourite quote from Marie Curie: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
Napier is inviting people who personally know, or want to highlight the story, of a historic STEM woman to get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elissa Barnard is a Halifax freelance journalist who worked for the Chronicle Herald as an arts journalist for 35 years. @elissabarnard