March 1, 2017

“What if female scientists were celebrities?” [Women’s History Month]

Posted by Laura Guertin


For the month of March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I am dedicating my weekly blog posts to the outstanding organizations, resources, and inspiring stories about women in STEM. You can view my posts from this year and past years by searching on the tag “Women’s History Month”.


When I read this news in Nature’s daily science stories on February 21st, I immediately felt a deep sadness….

Carbon queen dies. Mildred Dresselhaus, a solid-state physicist and a powerful advocate for women in science, has died aged 86. Known as the ‘queen of carbon’, Dresselhaus unlocked the mysteries of carbon’s electronic structure and predicted the existence of carbon nanotubes. She was the first woman to become a full tenured professor at MIT. (MIT announcement)

Dr. Dresselhaus, affectionately referred to as Millie, earned an impressive collection of achievements and awards – first solo recipient of the Kavli Prize, first woman to win a National Medal of Science in Engineering, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom… and the star of a 60-second commercial from General Electric, titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?”

I first saw this ad from General Electric in early February, when the world received a virtual introduction to Millie.



On February 8th, General Electric released a whitepaper that shared results of research on the benefits of a gender-balanced workforce, such as gender-diverse companies performing 53% better than companies that are not gender diverse (Catalyst, 2004), and that closing the gender gap could increase GDP by up to 10% by 2030 (OECD Report, 2014). GE has committed to the goals of having 20,000 women in STEM roles by 2020 and for obtaining 50:50 representation in all their technical entry-level programs with a focus on recent college graduates. Currently, General Electric employs 14,700 women in engineering, manufacturing, IT, and product management, representing 18% of the company’s technical workforce (Business Insider, 2017).

So what’s the real motivation behind this GE commercial? Slate Magazine (2017) states that, “Promoting women in science and tech isn’t just good HR—these days it’s good PR, too.” So is this a PR stunt, or a real, honest acknowledgement that intentional changes need to be made in recruitment, retention, and the creation of an inclusive environment? Only time will tell how successful General Electric will be with their efforts towards gender equality.

“Unless we bring more women into technology and manufacturing, there will be a significant negative economic impact on the sector. This is a problem for business to actively address.” — GE chief economist Marco Annunziata

I missed the opportunity to get a selfie with Millie (you’ll see this in the video/commercial). But maybe, someday, I can get Millie Dresselhaus doll. And I can hope that, someday soon, I will have trick-or-treaters show up at my home dressed like female scientists. In the meantime, I welcome the opportunity to have Millie and other women scientists celebrated as celebrities.

To learn more about Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus, I encourage you to watch this video interview with Millie as part of the MIT Oral History Project (recorded in 2007).



“Any equation she can solve / Every problem she can resolve / Mildred equals brains plus fun / In math and science, she’s second to none.” — from Dresselhaus’s high school senior yearbook, quoted in IEEE Spectrum article


More tributes to Millie Dresselhaus:

  • Honoring Mildred Dresselhaus, a compilation of interviews by WebsEdgeEducation
  • NPR – Mildred Dresselhaus, ‘Queen Of Carbon’ And Nanoscience Trailblazer, Dies At 86
  • The New York Times – Mildred Dresselhaus, the Queen of Carbon, Dies at 86