History of women in engineering

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Historical perspective[edit]

Although the terms engineer and engineering date from the Middle Ages, they acquired their current meaning and usage only recently in the nineteenth century. Briefly, an engineer is one who uses the principles of engineering – namely acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge – in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. Some of the major branches of the engineering profession include civil engineering, military engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, computer engineering, and biomedical engineering.[1]

Women engineers as inventors[edit]

Before engineering was recognized as a formal profession, women with engineering skills often sought recognition as inventors. One of the earliest women inventors was Hypatia of Alexandria (350? 370?–415), who is credited with the invention of the hydrometer. Tabitha Babbit (1784–1853?) was an American toolmaker who invented the first circular saw. Sarah Guppy (1770–1852) was an Englishwoman who patented a design for bridge foundations. Mary Dixon Kies (1752–1837) was the first American woman to receive a patent for her method of weaving straw in 1809.[2]

Entry into technical professions – 19th century[edit]

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, new technology-based occupations opened up for both men and women. Sarah Bagley (1806–?) is remembered not only for her efforts to improved working conditions for women mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1830s and 1840s, but also for being one of the earliest women to work as a telegraph operator. Mathilde Fibiger (1830–1872), a Danish novelist and advocate of women's rights, became a telegraph operator for the Danish State Telegraph system in the 1860s.

Engineering began to be taught as a formal academic discipline in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The École Polytechnique in France was established in 1794 to teach military and civil engineering; West Point Military Academy in the United States established a program modeled after the École Polytechnique in 1819. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) began to teach civil engineering in 1828. However, none of these institutions admitted women as students at the time of their founding.[3]

In the 19th century, women who performed engineering work often had academic training in mathematics or science. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852), Lord Byron's daughter, was privately schooled in mathematics before beginning the collaboration with Charles Babbage on his analytical engine that would earn her the designation of the "first computer programmer." Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923), a British engineer and inventor who helped develop electric arc lighting, studied mathematics at Cambridge in 1880, but was denied a degree, as women were only granted certificates of completion at the time. Similarly, Mary Engle Pennington (1872–1952), an American chemist and refrigeration engineer, completed the requirements for a BS degree in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1892, but was given a certificate of proficiency instead.

Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1887–1973) is one of the first formally recognised female engineers in Europe. Due to prejudices against women in the sciences, she was rejected by the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest, Romania. However, in 1909, she was accepted at the Royal Academy of Technology in Berlin. She graduated from the university in 1912, with a degree in engineering, specialising in chemistry, possibly becoming one of the first women engineers in the world. Other women in engineering in the same time period include three Danish women: Agnes Klingberg, Betzy Meyer, and Julie Arenholt, who graduated in 1897 and 1901 from 'Polyteknisk Læreanstalt', today known as the Danish Technical University.[4] The first female engineering graduate in Britain was Alice Perry who graduated from Queen's College, Galway in 1906.

Women's entry into engineering programs – Early 20th century[edit]

In the early years of the twentieth century, a few women were admitted to engineering programs, but they were generally looked upon as curiosities by their male counterparts. Nora Stanton Blatch Barney (1883–1971), daughter of Harriot Stanton Blatch and granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was the first woman to receive a degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in 1905. In the same year, she was accepted as a junior member of the American Society of Civil Engineers; however, twelve years later, after having worked as an engineer, architect, and engineering inspector, her request for an upgrade to associate membership was denied. Olive Dennis (1885–1957), who became the second woman to graduate from Cornell with a civil engineering degree in 1920, was initially hired by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as a draftsman; however, she later became the first person to claim the title of Service Engineer when this title was created.

Alice Perry was the first woman in Europe to graduate with a degree in engineering in 1908 from Queen's College, Galway.[5] Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu, a Romanian engineer graduated from the Technical University of Berlin in 1912.[6]

World War II engineering programs for women[edit]

The entry of the United States into World War II created a serious shortage of engineering talent as men were drafted into the armed forces at the same time that industry ramped up production of armaments, battleships, and airplanes. The U.S. Office of Education initiated a series of courses in science and engineering that were open to women as well as men.

Private programs for women included GE on-the-job engineering training for women with degrees in mathematics and physics, and the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Program had "Curtiss-Wright Cadettes"[7][verification needed] ("Engineering Cadettes", e.g., Rosella Fenton).[8] The company partnered with Cornell, Penn State, Purdue, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, RPI, and Iowa State University to create an engineering curriculum that eventually enrolled over 600 women. The course lasted ten months and focused primarily on aircraft design and production.[7]

Thelma Estrin (1924–2014 ), who would later become a pioneer[specify] in the fields of computer science and biomedical engineering, took a 1942 three-month engineering assistant course at Stevens Institute of Technology and earned University of Wisconsin BSc, MSc, and PhD degrees.[dubious ]

Women and computing in the postwar era[edit]

In 1943, the United States Army authorized a secret project at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering to develop an electronic computer to compute artillery firing tables for the Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory. The project, which came to be known as ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was completed in 1946.

Previous to the development of the ENIAC, the U.S. Army had employed women trained in mathematics to calculate artillery trajectories, at first using mechanical desk calculators and later the differential analyzer developed by Vannevar Bush, at the Moore School. In 1945, one of these "computers", Kathleen McNulty (1921–2006), was selected to be one of the original programmers of the ENIAC, together with Frances Spence (1922– ), Betty Holberton (1917–2001), Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman (1924–1986), and Betty Jean Jennings (1924–2011). McNulty, Holberton, and Jennings would later work on the UNIVAC, the first commercial computer developed by the Remington Rand Corporation in the early 1950s.

Resistance to coeducation in engineering schools, 1950s–1970s[edit]

The Cold War and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union created additional demands for trained engineering talent in the 1950s and 1960s. Many engineering schools in the U.S. that had previously admitted only male students began to tentatively adopt coeducation. After 116 years as an all-male institution, RPI began to admit small numbers of female students in the 1940s. Georgia Tech began to admit women engineering students in 1952, but only in programs not available in other state universities. It would be 1968 before women were admitted to all courses offered by Georgia Tech.[9][10]

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had graduated its first female student, Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911) in 1873; she later became an instructor at MIT. However, until the 1960s, MIT enrolled few female engineering students, due in part to a lack of housing for women students. After the completion of the first women's dormitory on campus, McCormick Hall, in 1964, the number of women enrolled increased greatly. Influenced in part by the second wave feminism movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, female faculty members at MIT, including Mildred Dresselhaus and Sheila Widnall, began to actively promote the cause of women's engineering education.[11]

The École Polytechnique in Paris first began to admit women students in 1972.

More women enter engineering and the "incredible shrinking pipeline," 1980s–1990s[edit]

As more engineering programs were opened to women, the number of women enrolled in engineering programs increased dramatically. The number of BA/BS degrees in engineering awarded to women in the U.S. increased by 45 percent between 1980 and 1994. However, during the period of 1984–1994, the number of women graduating with a BA/BS degree in computer science decreased by 23 percent (from 37 percent of graduates in 1984 to 28 percent in 1994). This phenomenon became known as "The incredible shrinking pipeline," from the title of a 1997 paper on the subject by Dr. Tracy Camp, a professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at the Colorado School of Mines.[12]

Some of the reasons for the decline cited in the paper included:

  • The development of computer games designed and marketed for males only;
  • A perception that computer science was the domain of "hacker/nerd/antisocial" personality types;
  • Gender discrimination in computing;
  • Lack of role models at the university level.[13]


United States[edit]

According to studies by the National Science Foundation, the percentage of BA/BS degrees in engineering awarded to women in the U.S. increased steadily from 0.4 percent in 1966 to a peak of 20.9 percent in 2002, and then dropped off slightly to 18.5 percent in 2008. However, the trend identified in "The incredible shrinking pipeline" has continued; the percentage of BA/BS degrees in mathematics and computer science awarded to women peaked in 1985 at 39.5 percent, and declined steadily to 25.3 percent in 2008.

The percentage of master's degrees in engineering awarded to women increased steadily from 0.6 percent in 1966 to 22.9 percent in 2008. The percentage of doctoral degrees in engineering awarded to women during the same period increased from 0.3 percent to 21.5 percent.[14]


Only 9.6% of engineers in Australia are women, and the rate of women in engineering degree courses has remained around 14% since the 1990s.[15]

United Kingdom[edit]

The percentage of female engineering graduates rose from 7 percent in 1984 to 15 percent in 2007.[16] The proportion of engineers in industry who are women is, on the other hand, still very low at around 6% – the lowest percentage in the EU.

Initiatives to promote engineering to women[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What is engineering and what do engineers do?". National Academy of Engineering website FAQ. Retrieved 2011-08-21. 
  2. ^ Stanley, Autumn, Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Invention (Metuchen, NJ and London: Scarecrow Press, 1993).
  3. ^ John H. Lienhard. "No. 1107: Engineering Education". Engines of our Ingenuity. Retrieved 2011-07-29. 
  4. ^ (in Danish) "De første kvindelige ingeniører Agnes og Betzy - to pionerer" Check |url= scheme (help). Danish Society of Engineers, IDA website. Retrieved 2014-11-13. 
  5. ^ Irish Architectural Archive. "PERRY, ALICE JACQUELINE". Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940. Irish Architectural Archive. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  6. ^ Cociuban, Anca. "Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu – First female engineer in the world". Amazing Romanians. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Bix, Amy Sue, "'Engineeresses' Invade Campus: Four decades of debate over technical coeducation." IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 19 Nr. 1 (Spring 2000), 21.
  8. ^ "In Memoriam: Pilot and Physics Teacher". The Penn Stater. July–August 2013. Fenton...arrived at Penn State in 1942 as part of the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Program, which was training women to replace male engineers who were fighting in World War II. [After] work[ing] at Curtiss-Wright, [she] enlist[ed] in the Navy, including a stint at...Wright-Patterson... She later taught physics at Cal State-Sacramento for 38 years. 
  9. ^ Terraso, David (2003-03-21). "Georgia Tech Celebrates 50 Years of Women". Georgia Institute of Technology News Room. Retrieved 2006-11-13. 
  10. ^ Cuneo, Joshua (2003-04-11). "Female faculty, staff offer professional perspectives". Archived from the original on January 10, 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-17. 
  11. ^ Bix, "'Engineeresses' Invade Campus," 25-6.
  12. ^ Camp, Tracy, "The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 40 Nr. 10 (October 1997), 103–110.
  13. ^ Camp, T., and Gurer, D., "Women in Computer Science: Where Have We Been and Where are We Going?" Proceedings, Women and Technology: Historical, Societal, and Professional Perspectives. IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, New Brunswick, NJ, July 1999, 242–3.
  14. ^ "S&E Degrees: 1966–2008". National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation. Retrieved 2011-08-07. 
  15. ^ http://www.robogals.org/about/the-case-for-robogals
  16. ^ "WISE Excellence Awards 2007". Edinburgh Napier University. Retrieved 2011-08-10. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bix, Amy Sue. Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women (MIT Press, 2014)