There’s no denying the fact that women are hugely underrepresented in the engineering field, as well as in wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects and related careers. Much debate centers around the topic of how to encourage more women to enter these professions.
According to the Knowledge Center on catalyst.org, work experiences impact women’s decisions to leave Science, Engineering, and Technology careers. The research suggests that “almost one-third of women in the US (32%) and China (30%) intend to leave their SET jobs within a year, and these leave rates peak about 10 years into their careers.” Some of the reasons for leaving these jobs include isolation, ineffective feedback, and a lack of sponsors.
Even though STEM fields have fewer women on boards than other industries, many female engineers have already done multitudes to advance the field.
Here are ten notable women who changed the history of the AEC industry.
1. Julia Morgan
Source: Kennedy Library Online Archive
In 1898, Julia Morgan became the first woman admitted to the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris, widely regarded as the best school of architecture in the world. She returned to her California home and became the first woman licensed by the state to practice architecture. She was a leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement and designed many buildings. Her YWCA buildings were institutions intended to serve women, but her most famous design was Hearst Castle, conceived for publisher William Randolph Hearst. Morgan supervised every aspect of the construction over the next 28 years, making her work a symbol of the utmost dedication to her career.
2. Janet Guthrie
Source: Janet Guthrie, Biography.com
Janet Guthrie is known for being one of the first female racecar drivers. She was the first woman to qualify for and compete in the prestigious Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. But, before she started racing, she was an aerospace engineer who learned to fly while she was in her teens. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in physics and worked as a research and development engineer for American aircraft manufacturer Republic Aviation. The work she completed during that time contributed greatly to Project Apollo.
3. Emily Roebling
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic engineering projects in America's history. Washington Roebling was its Chief Engineer, but when he became seriously ill in 1872, his wife Emily stepped in. She had been taking notes of what needed to be completed before he passed, and when he died, she began overseeing the day-to-day supervision and management of the project. According to ASCE, she learned about strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculation of catenary curves. Every day, she went onsite to relay her husband's instructions to workers and to answer questions. She kept records and was said to have represented her husband at social events. She was Chief Engineer in all but name, and the bridge — completed in 1883 — bears a plaque honoring Emily and her husband.
4. Hedy Lamarr
Source: Hedy Lamarr, Wikipedia
Hedy Lamarr is renowned as a glamorous film star from the 1930s and 1940s, but few people are aware that she was also an avid inventor. At the beginning of World War II, she developed a radio guidance system aimed at combating the threat of jamming by enemy forces. The US Navy didn’t adopt the technology until the 1960s, but the principles of her work live on in modern communications technology, including WiFi and Bluetooth.
5. Lillian Gilbreth
Lillian Gilbreth combined the fields of psychology and industrial and mechanical engineering to pioneer work in time and motion studies, as well as ergonomics. Gilbreth is credited with many “firsts” in the field of engineering, including household appliance and kitchen designs. In 1965, when she was in her late 80s, she became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Due to her husband’s concern with the technicalities of worker efficiency, Gilbreth studied scientific management principles that are still used today. Now, she is known as the “Mother of Modern Management” and is recognized as the first true organizational psychologist.
6. Edith Clarke
Source: Engineer Girl
Edith Clarke was an important figure in the field of electrical engineering. In 1921, she patented a graphing calculator used to solve power transmission line problems, and she was later involved in offering electrical engineering solutions for dam building. She was the first woman to earn a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT and went on to teach electrical engineering later in her career. Her inventions, including the graphing calculator, are still used today.
7. Helen Augusta Blanchard
Source: Helen Blanchard, Wikipedia
If you’ve ever used a zigzag sewing machine, then you have Helen Augusta Blanchard to thank. Born to a wealthy Maine family in 1840, she put her technical knowledge and flair for inventing to good use after her family lost its fortune. She filed 22 patents in total, many still relevant today, and the majority of which involved sewing machines.
8. Elsie Eaves
Source: Walter P. Reuther Library
In 1927, Elsie Eaves was the first woman to become a full member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). She was also a founding member of the American Association of Cost Engineers (now AACE International). During her notable career, she worked for the US Bureau of Public Roads, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and the Colorado State Highway Department. Later, she became the manager of the Engineering News-Record’s Construction Economics Department and the manager of Business News. Eaves could even build databases— without using computers. Perhaps her most distinguished and notable success was her ability to use data collection and reporting to track trends and spending activities relevant to construction projects.
9. Grace Hopper
Source: Grace Hopper Celebration
Grace Hopper was a pioneer of computer programming who worked on the Harvard Mark I, used by the US in World War II. She reached the rank of Rear Admiral in the US Navy, and was a senior mathematician at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. There, she worked with a team developing the UNIVAC I, which was the first known large-scale electronic computer. When she announced a new programming language that used English words, she was reportedly told that computers only understand arithmetic. In an explanation, Hopper states, “I decided data processors ought to be able to write their programs in English, and the computers would translate them into machine code. I could say ‘Subtract income tax from pay’ instead of trying to write that in octal code or using all kinds of symbols.” The new programming language, COBOL is one of the major languages still used in data processing today.
10. Nora Stanton
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica
English-born engineer Nora Stanton would later become the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Born in Basingstoke in 1883, she moved to the US at a young age and became the first woman to graduate from Cornell University. She worked alongside her husband, Lee de Forest, who invented the radio vacuum tube, before their divorce. Later, she worked as an engineer and chief draftsman at the Radley Steel Construction Company and as an engineer for the New York Public Service Commission. Stanton passed her love of the industry to her daughter, who later became an architect.
These women were indeed trailblazers of their days, but their passion and successes still live on in the AEC industry. As more women enter engineering career fields in the coming years, we’ll not only see them in executive roles, but we’ll witness a new age of innovations pioneered by women.