Women in engineering

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Autodidact computer chip designer and inventor Jeri Ellsworth at the Bay Area "Maker Faire" in 2009.

Women have contributed to the diverse fields of engineering in modern and historical times. Women are often under-represented in the fields of engineering, both in academia and in the profession of engineering. A number of organizations and programs have been created to understand and overcome this tradition of gender disparity.


The history of women in engineering predates the development of the profession of engineering. Before engineering was recognized as a formal profession, women with engineering skills often sought recognition as inventors, such as Hypatia of Alexandria (350 or 370–415 AD), who is credited with the invention of the hydrometer. In the 19th century, women who performed engineering work often had academic training in mathematics or science. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was privately schooled in mathematics before beginning her collaboration with Charles Babbage on his analytical engine that would earn her the designation of the "first computer programmer." Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923), a British engineer and inventor studied mathematics at Cambridge in the 1880s. Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) took over the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband became ill with the bends and was bedridden. She played pupil, secretary, messenger, and engineer throughout the remainder of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Due to her dedication to the construction of the bridge, Emily was the first to cross the Brooklyn Bridge after it opened on May 24, 1883. Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1887–1973) is one of the first female engineers in Europe. In the early years of the twentieth century, a few women were admitted to engineering programs, but they were generally looked upon as curiosities by their male counterparts.

Alice Perry was the first woman in Europe to graduate with a degree in engineering in 1908 from Queen's College, Galway.[1] Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu, a Romanian engineer graduated from the Technical University of Berlin in 1912.[2] The entry of the United States into World War II created a serious shortage of engineering talent in that country as men were drafted into the armed forces. The GE on-the-job engineering training for women with degrees in mathematics and physics, and the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Program had "Curtiss-Wright Cadettes"[3][verification needed] ("Engineering Cadettes", e.g., Rosella Fenton).[4] The company partnered with Cornell, Penn State, Purdue, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, RPI, and Iowa State University to create an engineering curriculum that eventually enrolled over 600 women. The course lasted ten months and focused primarily on aircraft design and production.[3]

Edith Clarke (1883-1959), was the first female electrical engineer to ear a degree from MIT in 1918. She was the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the US and the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She invented the graphical calculator used in finding characteristics of electrical transmission lines.

Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973) was known as “Lady Edison” in the 1920’s and 30’s because of her many inventions. She registered 49 patents and is credited with at least 110 inventions. She was always tinkering to improve things she could use. Some of her patents included the bobbin-free lockswitch sewing machine, vacuum ice cream freezer, copy-making typewriter. After she moved to New York in 1924 and founded two companies where she created some of her inventions. She was the founder of Henry Umbrella and Parasol Company and the B.L. Henry Company.

Kathleen McNulty (1921–2006), was selected to be one of the original programmers of the ENIAC. Georgia Tech began to admit women engineering students in 1952. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had graduated its first female student, Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911) in 1873. The École Polytechnique in Paris first began to admit women students in 1972.

Factors contributing to lower female participation

Incentives in higher education

Enrollment and graduation rates of women in post-secondary engineering programs are very important determinants of how many women go on to become engineers. Undergraduate degrees are acknowledged as the "latest point of standard entry into scientific fields."[5]

Percentage of total undergraduate engineering degree completions by women in Australia, Canada, the UK, and US[6]
Country  % of women year
Australia 14.1% 2004
Canada 18.5% 2004
United Kingdom 9.5% 2005-06
United States 19.3% 2005-06

Countries such as the United States and Canada have more flexible entry requirements into post-secondary education, whereas countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia may demand that students study math, physics, and chemistry in high school.[6] Women are less likely to study mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering than chemical or civil engineering.[6] This may "reflect the popularity of environmental engineering among women."[6]

All explanations for women persisted difficulty are of two main kinds. One is about capital characteristics, another one is about gender difference.[7] Stereotype threat includes gender identification, gender endorsement, engineering identification and gender ability perceptions.[8] women in engineering experience difficulties related to the male-dominated aspects of engineering but women who persist are able to overcome these difficulties enabling them to find fulfilling and rewarding experiences in the engineering profession.[9]


United States

Females are underrepresented as both graduate students in engineering and working engineers.[10][11] The number of bachelor's degrees awarded to women dropped from 20.4% in 2003, down to 17.8% in 2009, and back up to 18.9% in 2012.[12] Master's Degrees awarded to women has not changed much from 22.3% in 2003 to 23.1% in 2012.[12] Doctoral degrees awarded to women in engineering increased from 11.6% of total degrees awarded in 1995. to 17.4% in 2004,[13] to 21.1% in 2008,[14] then up a slightly again in 2012 to 22.2%.[12] The workforce remains as the area of highest under-representation for women; only 11% of the engineering workforce in 2003 were women.[15]


Only 9.6% of engineers in Australia are women, and the rate of women in engineering degree courses has remained around 14% since the 1990s.[16]


In Canada, though women tend to make up more than half of the undergraduate population in Canada, the number of women in engineering is disproportionately low.[17] Whereas in 2001, 21 percent of students in engineering programs were female, by 2009, this had fallen to 17 percent.[17] One commentator attributed this to a number of factors, such as failing to explain how engineering can improve others' lives, a lack of awareness of what engineers do, and discomfort of being in a male-dominated environment and the perception that women must adapt to fit in.[17]

In the 1990s, undergraduate enrollment of women in engineering fluctuated from 17 to 18%, while in 2001, it rose to 20.6%.[18] In 2010, 17.7% of students in undergraduate engineering were women.[19]

2010 percentage of women enrolled in tertiary education programs in Canada[19]
Province Undergraduate Graduate Doctoral
Alberta 22% 23.3% 23.3%
British Columbia 16.5% 27.5% 27.5%
Manitoba 16% 22.9% 22.9%
New Brunswick 15.9% 19.3% 19.3%
Newfoundland and Labrador 20.9% 20.6% 20.6%
Northwest Territories
Nova Scotia 18.7% 15.8% 15.8%
Ontario 17.7% 21.4% 21.4%
Prince Edward Island
Quebec 16.3% 20.4% 20.4%
Saskatchewan 19% 27.9% 27.9%
Yukon Territory
Canada 17.7% 21.9% 21.9%

Female undergraduate enrollment was highest in 2010 in environmental, biosystems, and geological engineering.[19]

The number of women enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral engineering programs tends to vary by province, with the highest number in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.[19]

On average, 11% of engineering faculty are women and the percentage of leadership roles held by women is an average of 9%.[19] The University of Toronto has the highest female faculty rate in Canada at 17% and École Polytechnique de Montréal, University of British Columbia, and Dalhousie University all have a female faculty rate of 13%.[19]

CCWE1992 goals for 1997 and actual 2009 percentage of women involved in engineering in Canada[20]
Women in... 1997 2009
1st year undergraduate 25-25%
Undergraduate programs 17.4%
Master's studies 20% 24.1%
Doctoral studies 10% 22%
Faculty members: professors 5% Full: 7%
Associate: 11%
Assistant: 18%
Eng. degree graduates 18% 17.6%
Profession 10.4%

In 2011, the INWES Education and Research Institute (ERI) held a national workshop, Canadian Committee of Women in Engineering (CCWE+20), to determine ways of increasing the number of women in the engineering field in Canada.[21] CCWE+20 identified a goal of increasing women's interest in engineering by 2.6 percent by 2016 to a total of 25 percent through more incentives such as through collaboration and special projects.[21] The workshop identifies early education as one of the main barriers in addition to other factors, such as: "the popular culture of their generation, the guidance they receive on course selection in high school and the extent to which their parents, teachers and counsellors recognize engineering as an appropriate and legitimate career choice for women."[21] The workshop report compares enrollment, teaching, and professional statistics from the goals identified in 1997 compared to the actual data from 2009, outlining areas of improvement (see table, right).

Initiatives to promote engineering to women

Organization Country
Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology Global
Women In Engineering ProActive Network United States
Society of Women Engineers United States
Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing United States
Robogals Australia, United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, Canada, Japan, Philippines
Women in SET United Kingdom
German Association of Women Engineers (dib e.V.) Germany
Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN) Nigeria
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Women in Engineering Canada
Ontario Network of Women in Engineering Canada
South African Women in Engineering South Africa
Women in Engineering Student Society United Kingdom
Women's Engineering Society United Kingdom

See also


  1. Irish Architectural Archive. "PERRY, ALICE JACQUELINE". Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940. Irish Architectural Archive. Retrieved 8 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Cociuban, Anca. "Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu – First female engineer in the world". Amazing Romanians. Retrieved 8 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bix, Amy Sue, "'Engineeresses' Invade Campus: Four decades of debate over technical coeducation." IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 19 Nr. 1 (Spring 2000), 21.
  4. "In Memoriam: Pilot and Physics Teacher". The Penn Stater. July–August 2013. Fenton...arrived at Penn State in 1942 as part of the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Program, which was training women to replace male engineers who were fighting in World War II. [After] work[ing] at Curtiss-Wright, [she] enlist[ed] in the Navy, including a stint at...Wright-Patterson... She later taught physics at Cal State-Sacramento for 38 years.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  7. Evetts, Julia (1993). "Women and management in engineering: The 'glass ceiling' for". Women in Management Review. 8.7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Jones, Brett D.; Ruff, Chloe; Paretti, Marie C. (2013). "The impact of engineering identification and stereotypes on undergraduate women's achievement and persistence in engineering". Social Psychology of Education An International Journal.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Buse, Kathleen; Bilimoria, Diana; Perelli, Sheri (2013). "Why they stay: women persisting in US engineering careers". Career Development International. 18.2: 139–154.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Data on Women in S&E" (PDF). p. 4. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 6, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine". Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Retrieved 10 Apr 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Yoder, Brian. "Engineering by the Numbers" (PDF). ASEE. American Society for Engineering Educatio.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Table 2. Doctorates awarded to women, by field of study: 1995–2004" (PDF). National Science Foundation. Retrieved 10 Apr 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Scott Jaschik, Women Lead in Doctorates, Inside Higher Ed, September 14, 2010 (accessed June 18, 2013)
  15. "TABLE H-5. Employed scientists and engineers, by occupation, highest degree level, and sex: 2006" (PDF). National Science Foundation. Jan 2009. Retrieved 10 Apr 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "The Case for Robogals". Robogals. Retrieved 10 Apr 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Myers, Jennifer (9 Nov 2010). "Why more women aren't becoming engineers". Retrieved 24 Mar 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Women in Engineering". Engineers Canada. Retrieved 30 Jun 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 "Canadian Engineers for Tomorrow: Trends in Engineering Enrolment and Degrees Awarded 2006 to 2010" (PDF). Engineers Canada. Retrieved 30 Jun 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "INWES Education and Research Institute: CCWE+20 National Workshop Project Final Report" (PDF). INWES Education and Research Institute. Jul 2011. Retrieved 24 Mar 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 "Canada needs more women engineers—how do we get there?". University of Ottawa. 26 Jul 2011. Retrieved 24 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Bix, Amy Sue. Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women (MIT Press, 2014)
  • Rosser, Sue (2014). Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science. NYU Press. ISBN 978-1479809202.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>