Women Still Aren’t Going into Engineering


The Atlantic Monthly recently published an eye-opening article, Historic Rejection Letters to Women Engineers. The letters, from the archives of the Society of Women Engineers, were  mailed in 1919 in response to a survey conducted by two plucky women from Colorado.

Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts wanted to start an organization that supported and championed theentry of women into engineering schools. Part of their planning included corresponding with colleges of engineering across the United States. The published excerpts range from “no women now, or ever,” to a positive response from the University of Michigan and Stanford. One school, Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), was in the middle: women could study applied science but only as members of Margaret Morrison College, the women’s college.

This general ban on women in schools of engineering persisted into at least the 1940s, with some exceptions. MIT’s first female engineering student received her B.S. in 1903. The first female student, a chemistry major, graduated in 1873. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville admitted its first female engineering student in 1921. Two other internationally-renowned institutions postponed coeducation until 1955 (Georgia Tech) and, remarkably, 1970 (Caltech).

So women in the U.S. did not partake of formal engineering education until the mid-20th century. The advent of the Equal Employment Opportunity legislation and affirmative action plans during Lyndon Johnson’s administration effectively required employers to hire members of protected classes, including women. Given the paucity of female engineers, finding new employees who ticked the EEO box was not easy.

Even though the number of women graduating from engineering schools has increased in the ensuing 50 years, they still constitute less than 20 per cent of the engineering workforce—13 per cent according to a Harvard Business Review article—despite producing 20 per cent of engineering graduates. Why is the needle stuck so low?. (Read More)