If you look around the National Mall in Washington, D.C., there are not many women memorialized for their accomplishments.
In fact, there are only a handful of statues dedicated to women in the top 10 cities in the US.
“When you really dig into it, you find out that there's literally very few women statues, and that once you know that you can never un-know that, and you'll never walk through any city again, without noticing, 'Hmm, there's no women statues,'” said Nicole Small, the CEO of Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
That led to the organization's latest initiative: IF/THEN.
IF/THEN has the goal to further advance and elevate women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and inspire the next generation of girls to explore careers in STEM.
The organization gathered 120 trailblazing women to be role models and mentors and created bright orange, 3-D printed statues to display in around the Smithsonian's museums that line D.C.'s National Mall, making it the largest collection of female statues in the world according to Smalls.
“We thought, ‘Wow, we've got these 120 amazing women, why don't we turn them into statues and tell their stories that way?’” Small explained.
Lyda Hill partnered with the Smithsonian to bring the collection to Washington as part of it’s Women’s History Month celebrations. Rachel Goslins, Director of the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, told Spectrum News it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
“We're putting a twist on Women's History Month with Women's Futures Month, celebrating the power of women to change the world and help shape our future. And one of the best way to do that is bringing this amazing exhibition to the Smithsonian,” said Goslins. “[It] is a celebration really of the power of women, especially in STEM fields, to shape our world and lead us into a better and more hopeful future.”
Each statue represents a real woman who is working in a STEM field, including space flight engineers, social science researchers, video game developers, molecular neuroscientist, plus others who are making their marks on their respective fields. A QR code accompanies each statue to let the women share their stories in their own words.
Dr. Danielle Robertson, a professor of ophthalmology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is one of the 120 women depicted in the collection. She called the experience “humbling.”
“I just think it's so important that we get out there, particularly, you know, from my own experiences growing up,” explained Robertson, who came to Washington for the unveiling of the exhibit. “I wanted to make sure we could reach out to girls across the country and make sure that they saw the opportunities that were out there. And they saw real women out there everyday doing it.”
“When I grew up, I did not know a single woman physician, optometrist, PhD level scientist. They just didn't exist in my hometown,” added Robertson. “Whether it's optometry school, medical school, dental school, we've seen a real shift. In fact, with optometry school, we've seen a surge over 50%, we're now approaching up to 60. And so there's never been a better time for girls to pursue STEM.”
Robertson says when she started as a research faculty member at UT Southwestern, she was the only woman. Those experiences further shaped her desire to be a mentor.
“There weren’t other women around to collaborate with, to talk with. And I had fantastic role models and mentors, but the majority of them were men,” she explained. “When you get to bring a young mind to the lab, or into the clinic, and teach them and watch them grow, it's just an amazing experience. And then sometimes it's more exciting to see their successes than your own.”
Dr. Joyonna Gamble-George, a neuroscientist who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease pathology, anxiety and strep disorders, and drug addiction is also honored in statue form. She admits she faced her own difficulties getting into her field.
“There's not a lot of representation. We do have women that are in STEM fields, but a lot of those women are not in leadership positions, you don't see them as tenured professors, you don't see them in senior level positions, as entrepreneurs of biotech companies,” said Gamble-George. “When you're getting into a field where people don't really consider you what they think a scientist should look like, you’ve got to deal with a little bit of misconceptions and stereotypes.”
Gamble-George told Spectrum she had been looking at STEM careers since she participated in a STEM program at her high school in Maryland. The Florida native is now back in the Tampa area. She admits it’s still surreal to see herself in statue form.
“I have something that looks like me," Gamble-George explained. “I can be a future role model for younger girl who aspires to become a STEM innovator or a STEM professional one day. So I just feel honored just to be able to be in that position to actually provide mentorship and guidance for young girls.”
The statues will remain at the Smithsonian throughout the month of March and are located at different museums, including Air and Space, Natural History, Arts and Industries and more. There is also a permanent collection that lives online at ifthenexhibit.org.
“We want little girls to see someone who looks like them doing the things they're passionate about. But what we're learning is everyone who interacts with these stories comes away, inspired, hopeful and a little bit more knowledgeable,” said Small.