The History of Women in Engineering 

By Amelia Lipcsei

For decades, men dominated the engineering industry. Throughout the nineteenth century, less than 1% of the engineering workforce consisted of women due to lack of educational opportunities. However, with the booming job growth stemming from the Industrial Revolution, women began to see more opportunities to gain formal training. As mechanical and structural industries continued to broaden, interests in specialized areas grew significantly. With this new growth, a demand for engineering professions (especially in the automotive industry) skyrocketed. In response, universities created undergraduate and graduate programs that targeted these popular areas. As more programs opened up, women began entering higher education to pursue engineering degrees. 

Elizabeth Bragg Cumming (who many argue was the first woman to receive an engineering degree from an American University) was born in San Francisco. Coming from a wealthy family, Elizabeth attended a preparatory highschool that was attached to UC Berkeley. After excelling at math throughout her time in highschool, she went straight to Berkeley to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering. In 1876, she graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in engineering. However, due to lack of opportunity for women to enter the industry, Elizabeth struggled to gain footing in the workforce and eventually turned to teaching. Nevertheless, her ability to earn an engineering degree helped pave the path for future women engineers. 

In 1919, the first Women’s Engineering Society was established. Created to help enable women to enter the workforce, the Women’s Engineering Society lobbied for the acceptance of women on training courses. Their journal, The Woman Engineer, contained critical information about job opportunities and educational pathways for women seeking entry into the engineering workforce. Due to World War I, millions of women entered male-dominated workforces. With the majority of young working men away at war, women were encouraged to pick up jobs previously held by men. The Rosie the Riveter movement prompted a variety of women to contribute to jobs, and the Women’s Engineering Society opened up the pathway for women to enter the engineering industry. 

Eventually, the first woman was able to enter the workforce in the early 1900’s. Edith Clark, a future electrical engineer, attended Vassar, M.I.T., Columbia, and University of Wisconsin, before becoming the supervisor for General Electric. She is best known for her invention the Clarke calculator (a simpler version of a graphing calculator), but she is also remembered for opening the doorway for future female engineers. 

Another prominent female engineer, Katherina Johnson, joined the NASA team in 1952. Crucial to the success of the moon landing, Katherine developed calculations of orbital mechanics. Her research served to ensure the accuracy of the timing for the moon landing. 

Although the percentage of women in the engineering workforce has risen from 1% to 16% over the last few decades, engineering still remains a largely male dominated field. If you want to learn more about the history of women in engineering, I highly recommend reading Amy Sue’s book Girls Coming to Tech: A History of American Engineering Education for Women. You can find the link to the introduction of her book here