International Women’s Day: Celebrating Dr. Gladys West

Natalie Meiklejohn
Natalie Meiklejohn
08 Mar 2021
International Women Day

Did you catch our special Q&A session with Dr. Gladys West at EduDrone 2020? It was a real highlight of our year! Dr. Gladys West is a mathematician who was instrumental in designing the technology that you now carry around in your pocket with you every day – the GPS! She joined us to share her inspirational story and some insights from her 46 years of working in the STEM industry.

Missed it? Don’t stress! Each month in the lead up to EduDrone 2021, we’ll be releasing one of our favourite talks from EduDrone 2020! Tune in each month to get your fix of STEM-spiration. We hope this will keep the ideas flowing all the way through until EduDrone 2021!

International Women Day

International Women’s Day #ChooseToChallenge

March 8th is International Women’s Day! The theme for this year is #ChooseToChallenge

Here’s what IWD had to say about this year’s theme:

“A challenged world is an alert world.

Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day.

We can choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequity. We can choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.

Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.

From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.”

At She Maps, we’re on a mission to #ChallengeBias. Check out our video to understand why we’re so passionate about shaping students’ perceptions and challenging them to identify their own unconscious bias. Today, we’re choosing to celebrate the achievements of a real trailblazer, and our superstar presenter from EduDrone 2020, Dr. Gladys West.

International Women Day

Meet Dr. Gladys West

Dr. Gladys West was born in a small farming community in Sutherland, Virginia in 1930. Despite living through segregation, The Great Depression, and Jim Crow laws, she graduated from Virginia State University and became the first Black women hired at the Dahlgren Naval Proving Grounds – a naval testing centre in Virginia, USA. 

During her time there (amongst many other incredible achievements) she programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to provide calculations for an accurate geodetic Earth model. This computational modelling would prove essential to modern GPS, as the technology relies on this mathematical model in order to determine the position of a receiver.

During her career, Gladys was not recognised for her achievements and contribution to modern science and technology. She is often referred to as a ‘Hidden Figure’, alongside the likes of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson – three Black women who were instrumental in sending the first American man into space. Though previously not recognized for her ground-breaking work in STEM, her contribution to GPS impacts almost everyone throughout the world. 

In 2018, Dr. West finally received recognition for her ground-breaking work by the United States Military, in a press release issued by the Air Force Space Command. Later that year she became the first Black woman inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in a ceremony at The Pentagon.

International Women Day

From classified mathematics to mobile GPS

Just think of how many apps on your phone rely on GPS to work! If you’ve ever clicked ‘use my location’, you’ve relied on the mathematical model created by Dr. Gladys West. In fact, GPS is instrumental to so many industries – aviation, marine, farming, science, surveying, military, delivery services, and countless others. Dr. West admits that at the time she was working on the mathematical models behind the GPS, she never imagined it would have the far-reaching implications it does today; that everyone would be walking around with a GPS in their back pocket.

International Women Day

So what does maths have to do with GPS? It may not be obvious to everyone, but Gladys says she never thought about it any other way. “How do you express the relationships between objects in space? You get the mathematical equations that represent that. I never thought about space without maths.” To use GPS we need to know the shape of the earth, and this is why maths is so important, to define that shape in the first place.

Gladys’ work was highly classified at the time. She wasn’t able to talk about her work to people outside of her organisation. If friends or family asked what she was working on, she would just speak in very simplified terms like ‘calculations of the Earth’s shape’ or ‘calculations of the satellite orbit’. But in the 1950s, it was unlikely many people really understood what satellites did! Let alone what new technology might emerge from them.

Gladys has read the book ‘Hidden Figures’, as well as seen the movie, and said really enjoyed both. She says she had no idea at the time that there were other women like her doing such similar work, and so close by in Virginia! The author, Margot Shetterly, even invited Gladys West to do a Q&A with her based on her experiences, which were very similar to those of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson.

International Women Day

Set your goals and follow your heart

When asked if she had any advice for young women considering a career in maths and navigation, Gladys suggested reaching out the mentors and seeking out people who are interested in the same thing that you are. 

“Follow any STEM activities that are in your area, attend things like career days, and seek out people who know about things you’re interested in. Keep your eyes open, set your goals, search and find exactly what you want. I think that will be good enough. Follow your heart.

Gladys recently released a heart-warming and awe-inspiring memoir about her incredible life journey, called ‘It Began With a Dream’. Just like the rest of her career, her book has been a huge success, with 5-star reviews on Amazon. We highly recommend it as a wonderful memoir about a strong, intelligent Black woman who had incredible determination to achieve her dream. You can check out the full Q&A from Gladys West below, and make sure to order her book ‘It Began With a Dream’ from your nearest library, bookstore, or online

And in the spirit of International Women’s Day, will you #ChooseToChallenge and call out gender bias and inequity? This could be as simple as reflecting on your own bias in certain situations. Or talking with friends, family, and colleagues to recognise the gender bias that exists in our own workplaces and communities.

From challenge comes change, so how will YOU #ChooseToChallenge today?

Check out this page for a full list of resources for International Women’s Day

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