Ten Extraordinary Women in Male-Dominated Fields

Big Think salutes 10 women who have made inroads in professions that have traditionally been the province of men.

Despite the strides women have made toward equality in the past 50 years, they remain underrepresented in a variety of professions. Today we salute ten female pioneers in traditionally male-dominated fields:

1. Irina Krush (Chess Master): Unlike most competitive pursuits, chess allows women to compete alongside men, yet a woman has never won a world chess championship. In fact, only one woman, Judit Polgar, has ever cracked the Top 10 in chess's world rankings. Big Think spoke recently with Irina Krush, who at age 14 became the youngest U.S. Women's Champion, and she told us that chess requires masculine characteristics that most women don't naturally have.

"Chess is a very solitary game," she says. "I think women or girls when they were growing up were more social animals; [they] prefer to do things in groups." She also points to traits like competitiveness and analytic thinking, which are crucial for success in chess but are more commonly associated with men. "For a woman to be successful in chess, she basically has to develop in herself more masculine qualities than she would if she was involved in another profession," says Krush.

2. Annie Duke (Poker Champion): Of the 38 inductees to the World Series of Poker Hall of Fame, only one is a woman. The truth is women still face discrimination in the world of poker, but they can use that to their advantage, poker champion Annie Duke tells Big Think. Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions (with a considerable prize of $2 million), but she is still treated inappropriately by many competitors. "I remember one time I won a hand from someone and he looked at me and he called me a 'frigid bitch,'" she recalls. Other men, losing money to her no doubt, have tried to assert their masculinity by objectifying her. "I’ve been really overtly and disgustingly hit on at the table," she reports.

But these insults and advances don't faze Duke; instead she uses them to trick her opponents. "Men are very unwilling to change their minds about who you are as a person, because the stereotypes that men have about women and their emotional reactions have been built into them since they were little tiny babies." And for a game like poker, where a player must constantly update the information he or she knows about the other players, that can spell disaster.

3. Kathryn Bigelow (Filmmaker): Earlier this year, veteran director Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for best director for her film "The Hurt Locker." Though women like Agnes Varda, Maya Deren, Leni Riefenstahl, and Jane Campion have played seminal roles in arthouse and avant-garde cinema, Hollywood has been slow to accept women in the director's chair. Roughly 10% of the 250 highest grossing films each year are directed by women.

4. Danica Patrick (Race Car Driver): With her win at the 2008 Indy Japan 300, Patrick became the first woman to win an Indy car race. Her 3rd place finish in the 2009 Indy 500 was also the highest finish by a woman in the event's history. Patrick is one of just seven women who have qualified for this race, one of the three most prestigious competitions in motorsports.

5. Cathy Lanier (Police Chief): The Washington, D.C., Chief of Police is the first woman to hold that position in our nation's capital. Her 80% approval rating is due in part to a sharp drop in the homicide rate to the lowest level in 45 years. Women have served as chiefs of police in Detroit and San Francisco, but the total percentage of female police chiefs nationwide is only 1%.

6. Frances Allen (Programmer): Female programmers are a rare breed, and lifelong IBM computer scientist Fran Allen is a notable exception. For her work in optimizing compilers, she became the first woman to win the Turing Award in 2006, considered the Nobel Prize of computer science. Allen also helped to design the code-breaking language Alpha for the National Security Agency during the Cold War.

7. Allison Vivas (Pornographer): The president of Pink Visual, an adult film production company in Van Nuys, California, Vivas doesn't look like your average pornographer. Ex-Playboy Christie Hefner could have also made this list, but we chose Vivas for her outspoken defense of pornography as feminist. Also in a bizarre series of events, Vivas was named "Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2009 by Newt Gingrich's group American Solutions for Winning the Future. The award was later rescinded.

8. Ann Dunwoody (General): The current Commanding General of U.S. Army Materiel Command, General Dunwoody is the Army's top-ranking female. Her career is series of historic firsts for women in the Army: first female battalion commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, first female general officer of Fort Bragg, and first woman to achieve the rank of four-star General in 2008.

9. Joyce Meyer (Minister): One of the most influential religious leaders in America, Meyer is a televangelist whose programs air in 25 languages in 200 countries. In 2005, Time magazine ranked her as one of the 25 most influential evangelical leaders in America; she was the only female minister on the list. She has sold over 20 million books, and her ministry brings in over $90 million per year.

10. Cristeta Comerford (Chef): The Filipino-born Comerford is both the first female and first minority executive chef of the White House. Despite their traditional roles as home cooks, women are seriously underrepresented in top kitchens around the world. Enrollment in culinary schools is equal for men and women, yet, according to the Bureau of Labor, just 20% of chefs and head cooks are women. Still, Comerford has managed to land arguably the most important position for any chef.

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

Keep reading Show less