This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Thursday, March 27, Future Tense and New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program will host From Nowhere to Nobels: Pathways to Success for Women in STEM in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
This month, many high school seniors nervously await verdicts on their college applications. Young women of 2014 would be justifiably appalled to receive letters from major American universities reading, “Our school specializes in training engineers and therefore only accepts men,” or, “Our engineering program is officially coeducational, but doesn’t welcome women, since admitting too many will waste faculty time, distract serious male classmates, and undermine our professional reputation.”
Yet well within living memory, young women who wanted to study engineering faced precisely such antagonism, even if rejection letters sometimes put it less bluntly. In 1955, Penn State’s dean of engineering declared, “Women are NOT for engineering,” asserting that all but a few “unusual women” such as Lillian Gilbreth lacked the “basic capabilities” necessary. In 2013, women topped 19 percent of enrollment in Penn State’s engineering college.
Women’s History Month represents the ideal time to reflect on how much has changed and how advocates can best support women in engineering today. From Renaissance Europe onward, engineering evolved inside the masculine worlds of military planning, railroad building, and industrial machine-shops. Even as 19th-century Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and other women’s colleges began teaching physics, biology, and chemistry, virtually nobody imagined any rationale for training female engineers. A handful of women earned U.S. engineering degrees in the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily at land-grant colleges, but they remained outsiders “invading” man’s sphere.
Women proved their technical ability during World War II. The same manpower shortages that drove factories to hire Rosie the Riveter led Grumman, Curtiss-Wright, and other defense industries to compete to hire female engineering workers. But when postwar culture re-emphasized traditional gender divisions, women interested in engineering faced resistance or ridicule from family, teachers, counselors, peers, and potential employers. They were stigmatized as oddities, on the grounds that as women they weren’t “proper” engineers, and as engineers they weren’t “proper” women.
Well into the late 20th century, some leading engineering programs remained male-only. Georgia Tech students and alumni defined their “hell of an engineer” identity by equating technical mastery with masculinity. Campus humor mocked the notion of admitting “powder-puff engineers”; cartoons showed female students using hydraulic testing-machines to crack pecans. Two-thirds of the postwar student body opposed opening Tech to women. One student wrote, “I am against coeds in any form (or lack of form) whatsoever. Why mess up Tech? Put me down as a charter member of the KKK Anti-Coed Division.” Under threat of lawsuits, Georgia’s regents grudgingly made Tech coeducational in 1952, though one moaned, “Here is where the women get their noses under the tent. We’ll have home economics and dressmaking at Tech yet.”
Even as Georgia Tech enrolled a small but growing number of women, Caltech’s leaders assumed their undergraduate program would remain safely male. But amid 1960s youth rebellion, Caltech students rallied to demand coeducation—not out of feminist fervor, but the desire for dates. They complained that “Millikan’s monastery” turned out “eunuchs of science,” brilliant engineers who were socially incompetent. One Caltech student wrote: “[The] Techer … would feel much more at ease and willing to work if he were not frustrated by the lack of a full, rich social life. The presence of women on campus would … be a great civilizing factor. Presently, the Caltech male loafs around in sloppy clothes, unshaved … ignoring … social graces. Hopefully, this would change for the better if an occasional female walked by. … [H]aving the girls eat in the student houses … [the] effect on the dining room decorum would be remarkable. So let’s go coed. ” He promised that making Caltech coed would “end the frantic concentration on girls as weekend sex goals” and rejuvenate men’s spirits, creating a renaissance in drama, art, and debate: “Students would not have to turn to marijuana because there would be many activities to engage in.”
Given Caltech’s intellectual intensity, the idea of keeping students happy proved controversial. Some personnel “voiced the opinion that too much savoring of social intercourse may be antithetical to success as a research scientist or engineer. Most Caltech faculty … spend relatively little time with their wives,” according to a 1967 Caltech report.
Caltech began admitting women in 1970. Under the headline, “Girls Coming to Tech!” the student newspaper asked, “Will there be enough to go around? Don’t fight, boys!” The school’s smallness made life miserable for many Caltech women, isolated both inside and outside engineering classrooms.
Meanwhile, MIT’s female faculty, staff, and students, with male allies, raised issues of sexual harassment, gender stereotyping, and self-confidence. Conferences brought engineering women together to network and share concerns. Many young women were delighted just to make contact with so many others “like them.”
Activists warned that women would never achieve “critical mass” in college engineering unless they reached out to motivate elementary-age girls. The Society of Women Engineers produced a 1970s coloring book, Terry’s Trip, about a girl visiting a toy factory and concluding, “Maybe some day I’ll be an engineer like Aunt Jennifer.”
But recent statistics demonstrate that the field’s gender imbalance persists. In 2010–2011, 18.4 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees went to women, the lowest percentage across all disciplines. For many women, patronizing put-downs, insensitive remarks, and discrimination still make everyday campus interactions tense. But other female students, faculty, and staff today find engineering programs and the profession rewarding, comfortable places. It is impossible to minimize how dramatically the environment has been transformed over a few decades. Institutions that once equated academic excellence with all-male identity now promote learning-community programs, mentoring, and extracurricular support for female engineering students. Before 1952, Georgia Tech had no undergraduate women; in 2011, Georgia Tech led the nation in granting engineering bachelor’s degrees to women. In early 1970, Caltech had zero female undergraduates; in 2011–2012, women comprised 39 percent of undergraduate enrollment.
Today, when the most egregious expressions of sexism draw quick condemnation, research has demonstrated the difficulty of combating more insidious challenges such as “stereotype threat” and “micro-discrimination.” But today’s engineering profession takes gender diversity seriously. The National Academy of Engineering crafted a multimedia campaign to interest young women by emphasizing engineering’s social value. “Women who become engineers save lives, prevent disease, reduce poverty, and protect our planet. Dream Big. Love what you do. Become an engineer.”
Talking with women around the country now majoring in engineering, I’ve met many whose satisfying experiences make them almost unable to comprehend past hostility, plus others who still encounter upsetting sexism. But the dramatic change is clear: These young women take it for granted that they have the right to explore technical interests, and the right to enter the most prestigious engineering schools.