7 women smashing glass ceilings and inspiring girls to lead | Plan International Skip to main content

1. Karen Uhlenbeck

Mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck has become the first woman to win the Abel prize, often called the Nobel prize of mathematics.

The 76-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio became the first woman to win the prize for "her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory, and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics."

The prize citation goes on to say her work has led to “some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics in the last 40 years.” 

Uhlenbeck has inspired a generation of gifted young girls to reach for the stars in STEM subjects and has advice on breaking through in a male-dominated field. 

2. Aseel Al-Hamad

Aseel Al-Hamad is a Saudi Arabian engineer, and motorsport enthusiast. She became the first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, quite a feat for a woman in a country which only lifted the ban on women driving (any car, anywhere in the country) last year. 

Al-Hamad drove a Renault Formula 1 car around the French Grand Prix track to celebrate the news and heralded the “start of a new era for Saudi women in motorsport”.

Sometimes smashing glass ceilings is about rising to the top of politics or industry. In Al-Hamad's case, it's using this historical moment to representing girls and women, on the track, in front of the world’s media.

Watch Al-Hamad slay in her lane: 

3 & 4. Christina Koch and Anne McClain

The two astronauts made headlines recently as the first all-female space walk was due to take place. However, the trip was cancelled due to a lack of appropriately sized space suits.

This development has served to highlight possible gender bias or discrimination in the aerospace industry. It has also hit every major news outlet, showing a whole new generation of girls there is a precedent for them if they dream of reaching the stars. (Metaphorically, of course.)

Despite the media attention, Koch and McClain have spoken out about the matter as being at their request and due to reasons of safety and efficiency. Which is why they are the glass-ceiling smashing astronauts at the top of their game. 

The first all-female space walk is due to be rescheduled. While we wait, watch these two inspiring space explorers in action.

5. Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin

The 33-year-old Nigerian social impact entrepreneur founded GirlsCoding, an NGO teaching girls how to design and build websites to help solve issues in their communities. 

There were comments like ...'are you from the marketing department?'

Ajayi-Akinfolarin left a successful career to dedicate herself to this work after noticing how few women worked in tech (less than 8% according to a 2013 study). She wants to fix this gender gap.

"Technology is a space that's dominated by men. Why should we leave that to guys? ...I believe girls need opportunities," she told CNN.

Abisoye will be enabling a whole new generation of girls to address the issues that affect them in their immediate communities.

"We code towards a purpose, so [the girls] try to solve problems relating to what they see."

We can't wait to see what Abisoye's girls create.

6. Yifan Hou

Hou Yifan pictured at the Baku Chess Olympiad, 2016.
Hou Yifan pictured at the Baku Chess Olympiad, 2016. Photo credit: Andreas Kontokanis / Flickr

The 25-year-old chess prodigy is the top ranking female chess player and the only woman in the World Chess Federation's Top 100 players. 

She became the youngest woman to earn the coveted grandmaster title at just 14 years of age. 

Hou, from Xinghua City, China, has also been active in speaking out about sexism in the sport. Not least by quitting in protest in the final round of a tournament in Gibraltar after being selected to play 7 women out of 10 rounds. 

"It makes me really, really upset," she said after the event. "Not just for me but for the other women players." 

"We are chess players and of course when we are playing in a tournament we want to show our best performance and create interesting games for the chess fans, for the organisers, for the people who love chess."

7. Maru Nihoniho

Maru Nihoniho is a games developer from New Zealand. The indigenous Māori founded Metia Interactive in 2003, a studio which has gone on to win many coveted awards for producing a series of games intended to address the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

Her games resonate especially with Māori youth or 'ratahangi' who suffer high rates of depression, as well as representing female power and leadership to a new generation of Māori girls. 

Nihoniho's latest title is a choose-your-own-adventure game based on Māori history and mythology, led by Guardian Maia, whose duty it is to protect the people and the forest from hostile outside forces.


Make your choices, be aware of the consequences. Guardian Episode One.

A post shared by Guardian Maia (@guardian.maia) on

Nihoniho has been underestimated in the past.

"In the games industry, it's still very male-dominated. When I first started out...there were comments I heard like 'girls don't make games' or, 'are you from the marketing department?" 

Nonetheless, she's keen to ensure her games are authentic and beneficial to ratahangi today.

“When designing any type of program for Māori we need to ensure that their identity, language and culture are valued. It’s not just about putting in Māori graphics and words,”

“It’s about feeling included in the experience and, where appropriate, getting rangatahi involved in some of the design aspects.”

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