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The 2021 theme for International Women’s Day is #choosetochallenge – the idea being that we can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality.

We are fortunate enough to be living at a time where women can and do stand up, taking some of the biggest podiums in the world, to challenge, to inspire, and to stand up for equality.

But not every woman who chooses to challenge does so in such big and public ways. For centuries women have been silently battling and silently succeeding in male dominated fields, such as the military, IT, space exploration, manual labour, science, and as first responders. Just because the women who succeed in these fields don’t take to the stand, don’t shout about equality or aren’t well known beyond their field, doesn’t mean that they didn’t choose to challenge simply by following their passion and working hard.

Part of the IWD campaign is that we can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements, and the purpose of this article is to celebrate a few of those women, the ones who inspire simply by doing and succeeding.

Women in space

Women in space exploration embody the theme #choosetochallenge. Women currently make up 20% of NASA’s current engineers, due in part to early pioneers and trailblazers in the field. One such woman is Kitty O’Brien who was the first woman to graduate from the University of Virginia’s engineering program after she pursued a lawsuit challenging the all-male engineering policy. She went on to become NASA’s first female engineer in 1939.

Similarly, Mary Jackson had to gain special permission to take classes at the University of Virginia to become an engineer as classes were segregated at the time. In 1958, she became NASA’s first female African American female engineer.

Pioneers of IT

Another male dominated industry is IT, where currently only 28% of current workforce are women, but in fact women have played a pivotal role in ICT’s history.

For instance, Ada Lovelace is considered a pioneer and prophet of the computer age and is widely recognized as the world’s first computer programmer, and Radia Permal is considered the “mother of the internet.”

Grace Hopper is also considered a pioneer in the industry. In World War II, Ms Hopper joined the United States Navy after first being denied due to her age and size, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordanance Computation Project. There she worked on one of the earliest electromechanical computers and is credited with creating multiple programming languages, including the first English-like data language. She also retired from the Navy a Rear Admiral, posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and even won the computer sciences Man of the Year Award in 1973!

One quote of hers that embodies the #choosetochallenge mentality is “They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

In the military

Militaries always have been and continue to be a male dominated industry. Even today, the Australian Defence Force and US Military is only made up of 18% and 16% women, respectively.

Major General Susan Coyle, CSC, DSM may one day be Australia’s first female Chief of the Army. Major General Coyle joined the army in 1987 and has had an impressive career including multiple deployments and was the first woman to command the Joint Task Force 633 in the Middle East, overseeing 1,200 personnel. General Coyle has received numerous commendations including the United States Commendation Medal, the Conspicuous Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal, which she received for “exceptional drive, enthusiasm and commitment” during her tenure as the commander of Task Group Afghanistan. Major General Coyle embodies the notion of being an inspirational leader, not due to her gender but her work ethic and drive.

Lieutenant General (ret) Nadja West is the highest-ranking woman to have graduated from the United States Military Academy, and is the former Surgeon General of the United States Army. During her tenure she was the first African American female active duty Major General and Lieutenant General. She states that it was due to her skill that prevented discrimination during her role. Upon her promotion to Major General, General West stated,

...hope I can be an inspiration to any one or any group that has not seen themselves in certain positions. We all want to see people who look like us doing certain things to give us inspiration. Hopefully, I can inspire someone to be able to say, 'I can do that'.

Celebrating women

All these women are trail blazers in their own respects, but they are far from the only ones. There are millions of women throughout history and present day that are silently working and silently succeeding in male dominated industries – many of which will not be known, have no Wikipedia page, have no social media following, but they are choosing to challenge the norms and expectations which in turn paves the way for future women.

Let’s challenge gender stereotypes and bias, celebrate women’s achievements and help forge a gender equal world. #ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021



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