It’s not a secret: Engineering is one of the most male-dominated STEM professions in the world. In fact, only 13% of engineers in the workforce are women. Starting in 2003, The Harvard Business Review did a nine-year study (four years through college and five years post-graduation) that followed 700 engineering students through four schools and beyond, each school representing an elite private college, a public land-grant institution, an engineering-only college, and a single-sex college. They were surveyed on their experiences and 40 participants (21 women, 19 men) even submitted personal diary entries for the study.
Throughout the course of their study, they discovered a few interesting facts, including:
- Women and men enroll in engineering courses for the same reasons.
- Women are more interested in becoming social-conscious engineers.
- While both men and women succeeded equally, women doubted their problem-solving capabilities more than men.
- Men required less reassurance than women from professors and aids.
- Women continued to require reassurance from supervisors.
- Women experienced much more gender bias than men from both classmates and professors.
- Men found group projects to be much more exciting than women. Women found them to be negative experiences.
- When entering the workforce, women experienced the same stereotyping as they did in college, with some even suggesting that they were robbed of equal opportunities.
Susan S. Silbey of the The Harvard Business Review writes “…The gender stereotyping in the workplace, coupled with unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment, and greater isolation from supportive networks, leads many female students to revisit their ambitions.” She finishes the article with sage advice: “Engineering programs need to address gendered tasking and expectations among teams, in class, and at internship work sites. The culture has to learn to take women seriously.”
So what have we learned from this? That progress needs to be made, and the good news? It has been. In fact, the United States Census Bureau, in 2021, published a report that the percentage of women of women in STEM has increased, and women engineers have increased too. Programs are changing, and movements around the country are calling out gender inequality. In the Engineering field, there is one organization changing the game for female engineers.
Meet the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
The Society of Women Engineers is not a new organization. In fact, they’ve been operating for over 70 years. Their mission? Give women engineers a place and a voice within the industry. SWE offers a variety of programs and events, including “training and development programs, networking opportunities, scholarships and outreach, and advocacy activities.” They outline multiple goals for all of their programming, with the core purpose of all goals being professional excellence at every level of engineering, globalization, advocacy, and diversity. When it comes to DEI, SWE is at the forefront of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and is working to change the face of engineering for women as a whole across the country and the world.
SWE is comprised of a long list of female engineers who work to inspire current and future generations of women interested in entering this historically male-dominated industry. They carry the torches of women in engineering that came before them, some of whose inventions are still used today.
5 Famous Female Engineers Throughout History
If you’re a woman interested in entering the engineering field, you may be interested in learning some of the major engineering advances that were made by other females in the industry. In fact, it was a woman who built the theory that has resulted in our current Wi-Fi technology! Check out a few of these bad@ss women who forged their own way as engineers.
- Martha Coston: Picture this: Coston is 21, a widow, and has four children to feed. She’s going through an old diary of her husband’s and discovers a design for a flare. The problem is, it’s not perfect. So, what does she do? She spends the next ten years making tweaks to the design, reworking the logistics, until she creates a bright, multi-colored flare that lasts so it can be used as a communication beacon.
Ever heard of a Coston flare? That’s Martha’s. It was patented in 1859 and is still used by the US Navy today.
- Mary Anderson: Imagine you’re driving home late one night and it starts to rain. What do you do? Turn on the windshield wipers, of course. Well, you can thank Mary Anderson for that engineering innovation. She attached a rubber blade to a sprin loaded arm. Whether rain or snow, that arm would drag across the windshield to clear it.
The best part? When she attempted to sell the rights to the wipers, she was told by automotive companies that they had no commercial value. Rather, they would just be a distraction. Sadly, her patent expired before the automotive industry recognized the genius of her invention, but history remembers.
- Lilith Gilbreth: Say hello to the Mother of Modern Management. Gilbreth was the first female to join the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She held a job with General Electric to help improve the design of appliances in the kitchen and throughout the home.
She did all this while raising 12 (yes, twelve) children. Not only was she an incredible engineer, but she was the walking definition of a woman who could be both focused on her career and her family.
- Hedy Lamarr: Lamarr was both an actress and an inventor. While she was stunning on the silver screen, she also used her brilliance to create a remote-controlled communications system for the United States military. This invention laid the groundwork for modern Wi-Fi systems.
Much like Anderson, Lamarr’s patent ran out before anyone truly understood how incredible of an invention it was. Fortunately, we still remember.
- Emily Roebling: When Roebling’s husband took ill, it became apparent he wasn’t going to be able to finish the job he was working on. What was it? Just a little project called the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling took over the engineering team, managed the entire project, including materials, analyses, and technical issues. She literally became the standing leader during the construction of the bridge.
Never once did she try to take the job from her husband. Quite the opposite, she pushed them to keep him as Chief Engineer on the project. In return, she was the first person to ever cross the bridge.
The engineering field has a long way to go when it comes to inclusiveness to its female engineers, but never let that deter you from the incredible things that women in engineering have done throughout history. This list would be a mile-long scroll if we added the name of every influential female engineer out there.
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