According to Statistics Canada, there are more women than ever entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and science) fields. However, they are still significantly underrepresented. In 2016, 34% of STEM graduates were women, and beyond that, women only made up 23% of the STEM workforce.
Despite this lack of representation in the field, throughout history, females have made remarkable strides in engineering. Still, due to gender biases in these fields, they have been overshadowed and unrecorded in their successes. As time has progressed, this issue has started fading to the background as women are recognized for their achievements in engineering, and we’re learning more about the role that women have played in engineering fields for a long time.
This blog aims to elevate a small portion of the achievements made by female engineers throughout history, many of which have been foundational for discoveries and methods still used today.
Emily Roebling (1843 – 1903)
Emily Roebling was a socialite, builder, and businesswoman, who was largely responsible for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her husband, Washington Roebling, was the chief engineer on the project but fell ill shortly after the project started. He was battling a serious illness, and he had to rely on the advice and knowledge of his wife to help with the completion of this project. At the time of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was set to be the longest span suspension bridge in the world and the first built with steel cables.
Emily Roebling acted as the liaison between her husband, who was unable to leave the house at this time, and the engineering team. Through these interactions, she demonstrated a great understanding of construction, materials, and cable fabrications. Her expertise on these matters led the engineering team to believe that she had assumed the role of head engineer on the project in the absence of her husband.
Once her work on the Brooklyn Bridge came to an end, she dabbled in other construction projects, including the construction of her new family home. She moved on to get her businesses degree and worked travelling and lecturing until she passed away in 1903.
Lillian Gilbreth (1878 – 1972)
She was born in 1878 in Oakland, California, where, as a young woman, she convinced her Father that attending school, and ultimately, university was essential for her future. This resulted in her receiving an English degree and PhD in Psychology which she eventually applied to engineering and better workplace practices.
She married Frank Gilbreth, who owned a construction company, where they worked alongside each other to increase the efficiency of workers. Lillian focused on the application of social sciences to industrial operations; this is one of the first instances of upper management or owners focusing on the importance of workers in the equation of efficiency. In 1911 they published a book, “Motion in Study” which concepts are still used today but are more commonly referred to as ergonomics, and in 1912 they decided to close their construction company and worked together as industrial-management consultants.
When her husband passed away in 1924, he left Lillian with a flourishing business to run and 11 children to raise. There is a book written about her called “Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreath – A Life Beyond, “Cheaper by the Dozen” that details her amazing achievements as a mother, wife, academic, and engineer. Continuing her work as a consultant, she worked closely with Macy’s department store, improving the workplace layout and equipment design. Her suggestions drove down training time to peak efficiency from four months to two days!
As a result of her work, she was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the second women to join the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the first female profession of engineering at Purdue University, and until 2005, the only woman to have been awarded the Hoover Medal.
Edith Clarke (1883 – 1959)
Edith Clarke was born in Maryland, USA and attended Vassar College to study mathematics and astronomy, graduating in 1908. She used her education to teach mathematics at a private girl’s school in San Francisco. In 1911, she enrolled as a civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin. In 1919 she became the first female to achieve at MSc degree and then moved to Turkey to teach psychics at the Constantinople Women’s College before returning to America as an electrical engineer.
She became the first women to present a paper to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and her research went on to revolutionize the nation. She developed a mathematic formula named the method of symmetrical components that helped model power systems and their behaviour. At the time she developed this, transmissions lines were increasing in length, leading to increased loads and system instabilities. Prior to Clarke’s research, the formulas only applied to smaller systems and were unreliable in predicting the behaviours of larger ones.
She became the first female elected member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers.
Elsie MacGill (1905 - 1980)
Elsie MacGill was born in Vancouver, BC in 1905, and went on to achieve many things in her life. She was the first women to earns her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929 and is recognized as the first practising female engineer in Canada.
In 1938 she became the chief aeronautical engineer of the Canadian Car and Foundry (Can Car) and headed the Canadian production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during World War II. Her work on this plane caused her to be featured in 1942 in the American True Comics, where she was officially dubbed “Queen of the Hurricanes” in a comic. During this time, she also worked on the Maple Leaf II trainer, completely re-engineering the previous model, which is recognized as the first aircraft designed and produced by a woman.
Her story is well known to aviation enthusiasts in Canada, and her contributions to technology and society are celebrated as well. Throughout her life, she won numerous awards in many fields, including engineering, aviation, and her work with the feminist movement.
Ellen Ochoa (1958 – )
Ellen Ochoa is still currently making engineering history, and her achievements are widespread and outstanding. Born in 1987, she achieved both her Master of Science and a doctorate degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. She was selected by NASA in 1990 and the next year became the first Hispanic female astronaut. On her first venture into space, she was the mission specialist and flight engineer, where she worked on projects including software and hardware development and robotics development, testing, and training.
After spending almost 1000 hours in space, she moved on to become the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in 2007 and notably worked on the Orion. The Orion was scheduled to travel further than any other crewed spacecraft, with the intention of eventual exploration of Mars. Currently, she sits on several boards, including the National Science Board and chairs the committee that evaluates the nominations for the National Medal of Technology of Innovation.
How Switch Engineering is Combating Gender Bias In STEM
All these incredible women worked and are working to overcome gender biases in their chosen field, and we are proud to elevate the work that they have done. Switch Engineering volunteers with non-profits like DiscoverE and the Leduc Boys and Girls Clubs to facilitate STEM education in children and ensuring in the ways that we can excite and inspire children about STEM fields.