History of women in engineering
The history of women in engineering predates the development of the profession of engineering. Before engineering was recognized as a formal profession, women with engineering skills often sought recognition as inventors. During the Islamic Golden Period from the 8th century until the 15th century there were many Muslim women who were inventors and engineers, such as the 10th-century astronomer Mariam al-Asturlabi.
In the 19th century, women who performed engineering work often had academic training in mathematics or science, although many of them were still not eligible to graduate with a degree in engineering, such as Ada Lovelace or Hertha Marks Ayrton. Rita de Morais Sarmento was one of the first women in Europe to be certified with an academic degree in engineering in 1896. In the United States at the University of California, Berkeley, however, both Elizabeth Bragg (1876) and Julia Morgan (1894) already had received their bachelor's degree in that field.
In the early years of the 20th century, a few women were admitted to engineering programs, but they were generally looked upon as curiosities by their male counterparts. Alice Perry (1906), Cécile Butticaz (1907), and Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1912) were some of the first European to graduate with a degree in engineering. The entry of the United States into World War II created a serious shortage of engineering talent in America as men were drafted into the armed forces. The GE on-the-job engineering training for women with degrees in mathematics and physics, and the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Program had "Curtiss-Wright Cadettes" ("Engineering Cadettes", e.g., Rosella Fenton). 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.
Kathleen McNulty (1921–2006), was selected to be one of the original programmers of the ENIAC. Georgia Tech began to admit women engineering students in 1952. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had graduated its first female student, Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911), in 1873. The École Polytechnique in Paris first began to admit women students in 1972. The number of BA/BS degrees in engineering awarded to women in the U.S. increased by 45 percent between 1980 and 1994. However, from 1984 to 1994, the number of women graduating with a BA or BS degree in computer science decreased by 23 percent.
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.
Before engineering was recognized as a formal profession, women with engineering skills often sought recognition as inventors. 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. Naval engineer Henrietta Vansittart (1833-1883) held patents across the world for the Lowe Vansittart propeller and was the first female to write, read, and illustrate her own diagrams and drawings for a scientific article presented at Association of Foreman Engineers and Draughtsmen. Mary Dixon Kies (1752–1837) was the first American woman to receive a patent for her method of weaving straw in 1809.
19th century: entry into technical professions
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.
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. Therefore moving to the University of London, which granted her a bachelor of Science degree in 1881. 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.
Elizabeth Bragg and Julia Morgan became the first women to receive a bachelor's degree in engineering, by the University of California, Berkeley - U.S.A, in civil engineering (1876) and mechanical engineering (1894). In the same year of Morgan's accomplish, Bertha Lamme was also graduated from Ohio State University in mechanical engineering. Rita de Morais Sarmento (1872–1931) was the first woman to obtain an Engineering degree in Europe. She enrolled at the Academia Politécnica do Porto to study civil engineering of public works, which she concluded with various distinctions in 1894. Two years later, she was granted with the "Civil Engineering certificate of capability" to practise as a professional engineer, and although she never did, she was the first formally and fully recognised European female engineer. Lydia Weld was the first woman to graduate in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, starting her studies in 1898 and going on to work as a draughtsman in the engineering division of Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. She later became the second woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Other women in engineering in the same time period include three Danish women: Agnes Klingberg, Betzy Meyer, and Julie Arenholt, who graduated from 1897 to 1901, at the Polyteknisk Læreanstalt, today known as the Danmarks Tekniske Universitet
Women without formal engineering degrees were also integral to great 19th century civil engineering feats. Emily Warren Roebling is recognized as managing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and was the first person to cross the bridge at its opening ceremony in 1883. Roebling's husband, Washington Roebling, worked as the chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge project until he fell ill of decompression sickness. Upon her husband's illness, Emily Warren Roebling assumed her husband's duties at the project site, and taught herself about material properties, cable construction, calculating catenary curves and other subjects.
20th century: entry into engineering programs
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.
Cleone Benest passed the City and Guilds of London Institute's motor-engineering examination, the Royal Automobile Club's mechanical test in 1908 and took the Portsmouth Municipal College examination for heat engines in 1910. Using the professional name of C. Griff, she joined several engineering organizations and established a consultancy business in Mayfair. Alice Perry was one of the first formally recognised female engineers in Europe, graduated with a degree in engineering in 1908 from Queen's College, Galway. In 1908, Emma Strada was the first woman engineering graduate in Italy, coming third out of 62 in her class.
Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1887–1973), due to prejudices against women in the sciences, 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.
Edith Clarke, the inventor of the graphical calculator, was the first woman to earn a degree in MIT's electrical engineering department in 1918. Clarke also became the first woman admitted to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the precursor to the IEEE. She taught at the University of Texas Austin, where she was the only woman faculty member in the engineering department.
In 1919, in the United Kingdom, the first engineering society for women was founded - the Women's Engineering Society or WES as it is commonly known - and it is still active today, continuing to support women in engineering. Founders included Lady Katharine Parsons, who was instrumental in the engineering work of her husband Sir Charles Parsons, their daughter and first President of WES Rachel Parsons, house builder and suffragette, Laura Annie Willson, Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, Margaret Rowbotham, Margaret, Lady Moir, with Caroline Haslett the founding Secretary.
Juana Pereyra graduated from the Faculty of Engineering of the Universidad de la República in Uruguay, with the title of Ingeniera de Puentes y Caminos (Engineer of Bridges and Roads) in November 1920, making her one of the first female engineers in South America.
In 1921, Sébastienne Guyot (1894-1941) graduated in mechanics and engineering from the Central School of Paris in the first year group to allow women as students. She became an aeronautical engineer, ending her career as Head of the Helicopter Service at the French Arsenal de l'Aéronautique.
In 1922, Marguerite Massart graduated from the Université Libre de Bruxelles with a degree in civil engineering, making her the first woman to qualify as an engineer in Belgium. She later set up a successful foundry business in Ghent and introduced a desalinisation project and early solar panels in the first hotel on Sal Island in Cape Verde.
The first woman to earn a civil engineering degree in Mexico was Concepción Mendizábal Mendoza in 1930. Ying Hsi Yuan trained as a Civil Engineer in Peiping in the 1930s and worked in bridge design in China before taking a postgraduate engineering degree in University of Liverpool in the 1940s, later working in Hong Kong.
World War II engineering programs for women
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 (e.g., Rosella Fenton). 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.
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 ]
Through an accelerated program brought on by the war, Lois Graham (1925-2013) graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1946 and was the first woman in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology (M.S. ME ’49, Ph.D. ’59).
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.
In 1952, Polish electrical engineer Maria Wanda Jastrzębska earned a master's degree in electronics and went on to set up early computer labs and influence university teaching. In 1957, Araceli Sánchez Urquijo became the first female civil engineer to work in Spain, having been amongst the first 45 hydropower engineers trained at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute.
Resistance to coeducation in engineering schools, 1950s–1970s
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.
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.
The École Polytechnique in Paris first began to admit women students in 1972.
Margaret Hamilton is also notable for her contributions to computer and aerospace engineering in the 1970s. Hamilton, the director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory at the time, is famous for her work in writing the on-board guidance code for the Apollo 11 mission.
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 Tracy Camp, a professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at the Colorado School of Mines.
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.
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.
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.
The percentage of female and technology engineering graduates rose from 7 percent in 1984 to 14.6 percent in 2018. The proportion of engineers in industry who are women is, on the other hand, still very low at around 11.8% – the lowest percentage in the EU.
Initiatives to promote engineering to women
- Women in Engineering ProActive Network
- Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
- Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing
- Women in SET
- Women in Technology International
- The Society of Women Engineers
- Women's Engineering Society
- Alpha Omega Epsilon
- WISE – Women into Science, Engineering, and Construction
- WEPAN – Women in Engineering ProActive Network Inc.
- WIE – Women in Engineering Network
- Women in engineering
- List of prizes, medals, and awards for women in engineering
- Category:Women in technology
- Women in computing
- Women in science
- Women in the workforce
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