Today’s post is in honour of International Women in Engineering Day, June 23rd 2023. With this post, I want to highlight the achievements of women in engineering and provide pathways for universities to recruit more young women to their engineering programs. For centuries, women engineers have made major contributions to the field and changed our world. I will focus on ten women engineers you should know about, and then I will provide nine tips on what universities can do to raise the percentages of women studying engineering.
Ten women engineers who changed the World
Here are ten women engineers who changed the world:
- Ada Lovelace (1815-1852): She was a British mathematician, writer, and computer scientist avant la lettre. She wrote the first algorithm; the first procedure that could work on Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
- Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903): She was an American civil engineer, who took over the leadership on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband became ill. She was the first field engineer in the USA.
- Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972): She was an American industrial engineer, considered one of the pioneers of research on work-life balance through her “motion studies”, in which she looked at how people move in certain work settings. Her goal was optimizing the work environment to reduce worker fatigue – but she applied the same concepts to designing kitchen spaces for housewives, and overall household efficiency (which she explored personally as a working mother raising 12 kids).
- Edith Clarke (1883-1959): She was the first female electrical engineer in the United States and first female engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She made significant contributions to the field of electrical power system analysis. She also developed the Clarke calculator, a graphical device for solving power transmission line problems.
- Elsie Eaves (1898-1983): She was an American civil engineer and the first woman to be elected as a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). As a structural engineer, she played a key role in the construction of numerous bridges and buildings.
- Valentina Tereshkova (1937- ): She is a Russian engineer and cosmonaut, and the first woman to travel into space aboard Vostok 6 in 1963. She was in space for 2 days, 22 hours, and 50 minutes.
- Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973): She was an American mechanical engineer, famous for her many patented inventions, such as the vacuum ice cream freezer, a hair curler, and can opener. For all her inventions, she was nicknamed “Lady Edison”.
- Amalia Ercoli-Finzi (1937-): She is an Italian aerospace engineer who is instrumental in Italy’s space exploration efforts, particularly in the field of satellite systems.
- Hayaatun Sillem (1977- ): She is a British biochemist and the current CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, promoting diversity and innovation in engineering. While originally not trained as an engineer, she is changing the field and face of engineering through her leadership role.
- Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge (1954- ): She is a British engineer specialising in fracture mechanics. She is known for her work in sustainable energy and contributions to the development of UK energy policy.
What universities can do to attract more women to study engineering
Last year, I argued why we need more women in engineering. What can our universities do so that more young women study engineering, and so that they perhaps can have a similar impact as the famous examples I have given before? Here are nine ways in which universities can attract more female students:
- Tailor school visits to girls: Universities can think about how they can present engineering studies to young girls, focus on classrooms with a majority of girls for their presentations and cast a broader net to which schools and classrooms they visit, and invite women engineering faculty to show their research and teaching.
- Give young girls hands-on experience: Schools and societies may think that technical workshops are not for girls. Universities can organize workshops tailored to young girls, to give them hands-on experience with coding, building mechanical systems or robots, and learning technical skills through play.
- Offer networking opportunities with leading women in industry: Besides highlighting the achievements of women faculty, universities can show the profiles of leading women in industry. The focus in these profiles can be on the contributions these women make, as well as what their daily life looks like.
- Provide financial aid: Scholarships tailored to women studying engineering are a great way to encourage young girls who are doubting between various studies to go study engineering.
- Train faculty and students in unconscious bias: Changing the tide in engineering is a responsibility for all. It is easy to leave the burden to young girls. However, their professors and future colleagues should be aware of their unconscious biases, and training on this topic is relevant for all.
- Show the broad range of fields in which engineers provide solutions: When a young girl is faced with the decision between studying psychology and engineering, she may think that these fields are very far apart. However, the story of Lilian Gilbreth shows us that occupational psychology and industrial engineering are very closely related. Showing the broad range of engineering applications, and the increasing number of interdisciplinary developments, can lead more girls to get interested in the field.
- Create and sustain support networks: Many universities have societies dedicated to female students and faculty studying engineering (often, dedicated to all STEM fields). Where such networks are not available, creating them to advocate for the needs of female students is important. Where they are available, providing support and funding for the activities of the network is crucial to keep forward momentum.
- Highlight success stories of women graduates: Besides women faculty and leading women in the industry, students are interested in hearing about the success stories of graduates. Universities can compile testimonies from those very recently graduated, those who are mid-career, and those who are looking back on a long career. It is important to show a diversity of profiles, in terms of years of experience, as well as in terms of career paths these graduates chose.
- Train school teachers to give adequate advice and drop their biases. I remember the horrified expression of my physics teacher when I told her I was going to study engineering: “But that is no career for a woman! You will not be able to have a family!”. The reactions and biases of school teachers can discourage girls from studying engineering. Not all work is done at the university level. A large preparation step lies in schools and in providing training to teachers, so they can give better advice and check their biases.
Women engineers have made significant contributions in all fields of engineering, while they may not have received due credit in the past. To encourage more young women to study engineering and potentially change the world, universities can focus on activities for young girls, showcase profiles of female industry leaders, professors, and recent graduates, and provide bias training for the university community as well as for school teachers.