How One Successful Female Engineer Learned to Adapt to the ‘Boys Club’

The Life Member was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from her university

5 min read

Photo of Ruth Spivey.
Photo: Maggie Armstrong

THE INSTITUTEIEEE Life Member Ruth Spivey is a rare breed. The electrical engineer says that during her nearly 65-year career, she never experienced discrimination in the workplace, even though she was often the first woman to hold a position or the sole woman on a team.

Spivey, 94, held a variety of engineering jobs across the United States. She retired from the U.S. Air Force when she was 76, was hired back as a contractor and worked 10 more years. She held senior-level positions and earned a six-figure salary.

She believes she made it in a male-dominated field, she says, because she heeded the advice of one of her professors at Oklahoma A&M College, now Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater. When she graduated in 1945, she became the first woman there to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering.

“Ruth, you are invading a man’s world,” the professor told her. “Adapt. Don’t try to change it.”

So she worked at fitting in, she says: “I never got offended when the men cussed, and I laughed at their off-color jokes. I didn't know men were supposed to treat women differently.

“You might not agree with my approach, but I felt I was never discriminated against, passed over for promotions, or paid on a different scale.”

She acknowledges that labor laws regulating how women were treated in the workplace back then did impact her, but she says they never held her back.

The Institute interviewed Spivey about her long, fascinating career.


Spivey credits part of her success to her husband, James, who recommended her for her first civil service job. “He was very proud of the fact that he was married to an engineer,” she says. “I worked and traveled with men, but he never gave me a hard time or was jealous. I really hit the jackpot with that guy.” James Spivey died in 2010.

The two met at General Electric, in Schenectady, N.Y. She had joined the company right out of college. Her husband joined GE when he was discharged from the Army.

They started as test engineers in the company’s training program for engineering graduates. She was one of about a dozen female test engineers at GE. Test engineers worked on the factory floor, checking products as they came off the assembly line, such as large induction motors.

They both transferred in 1946 to the company’s new manufacturing site, Electronics Park, in Syracuse, N.Y. There she tested radar transmitters for ships. She signed up for as much overtime as she could get, she says, laughing, “because I wanted to buy new clothes. Even though I was an engineer, I still thought like a woman.”

After six weeks of working overtime, her supervisor told her they were in trouble. When she asked why, he said it was because he had let her work more overtime hours than what was legally allowed for women. He told her he had simply “forgotten she was a woman.”

“I didn’t take offense to that,” she says. “I was flattered.”

She and James married in 1946. She stopped working when she became pregnant with her first child, because of a labor law that prohibited expectant mothers from working. The family moved to Vallejo, Calif., where her husband was transferred to work on shipboard radar at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

Spivey became a stay-at-home mom, but not for long. When her first child was 2 years old, her husband came home at lunch and told her to get dressed for a job interview with the head of the shipyard’s radar design department.

“He had been telling people at work that I was an engineer,” she says. She was hired as a civil service employee, working for the Navy as an electrical engineer on the shipboard-radar division. She helped to equip the U.S.S. Estes—a command ship for the Ivy Mike project—with microwave technology that conducted and recorded the testing of a thermonuclear device.

After the Ivy Mike project was completed, the couple moved back to Syracuse. Spivey had another child and stopped working.

Her husband switched to broadcast engineering. GE transferred him back to San Francisco in 1958 and then to different facilities around the country. Spivey worked on and off.

In the 1960s she worked for a variety of companies. She was a packaging designer and instrumentation engineer for a naval architectural consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. She worked on the checkout system for the UGM-27 Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile being built in Sunnyvale, Calif., and on the design and assembly of equipment for the first solid rocket fuel and test cell for United Technologies, also based in Sunnyvale. She supervised six male technicians there—a first for her.

“It never bothered me, and it never seemed to bother them,” she says. “We were living during this flood of new developments and advanced technology, and we were all so excited about what we were doing. It was a fulfilling time.”

When the family moved to Tucson in 1964, she worked for Arizona’s highway department as a senior design draftsman, preparing location maps from survey notebooks. She got the job because her teenage daughter told the hiring manager, who was her best friend’s father, that her mother was an engineer and looking for a job.

In Lynchburg, Va., she was hired in 1966 as an electromechanical designer for a pipe and foundry company on its manufacturing-process-automation system. She was the company’s first female engineer, and women there were barred from going into the manufacturing plant. She finally convinced her boss she couldn’t do her job properly if she couldn’t see the equipment she was working on. He relented and took her to the plant. After seeing how dangerous the conditions were because of the hot molten metals being carried overhead and poured into casting machines, she understood why there had been resistance.

“I don’t scare easily, but I knew it was pretty dangerous, so I was always very careful,” she says. “After that first time, I got to go to the plant any time I wanted. That was another barrier I had overcome.”

She left the company in 1968 to join an architectural engineering firm, also in Lynchburg, performing heat-loss and heat-gain calculations and designing mechanical and electrical systems for schools, courthouses, and other buildings.

The family moved in 1972 to Quincy, Ill., where she worked for another architectural engineering company. She continued doing similar work for a consulting company for the rest of the decade.

Along the way she got her professional engineer license and took courses in mechanical engineering; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); and energy monitoring and control systems (EMCS).

After GE sold its microwave broadcast division, her husband joined Motorola in 1975 to work at its new Texas plant. That’s when the family made their final move, to Converse, outside San Antonio.

She continued her career, designing HVAC systems, first for an engineering consultancy. In 1977 she was hired as a civil servant in base civil engineering at Fort Sam Houston.


Spivey became an EMCS engineer for the Air Force Real Property Maintenance Agency. An Air Force major recruited her to be in charge of the state-of-the-art EMCS, prime-power generation, and energy-recovery system being installed at Wilford Hall Medical Center’s field engineering branch, now Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center. It was a 1,000-bed facility on the Lackland Air Force Base.

She left there to join the Air Education and Training Command (AETC)—one of the 10 major commands in the Air Force—at Randolph Air Force Base. She was promoted to lead the command’s mechanical design branch and its base relocation and closure branch, managing a team of six. The group worked on construction projects with the Army Corps of Engineers and their contractors.

She was promoted in 1998 to chief of the 76th Civil Engineer Group. She supervised 50 architects, engineers, technicians, draftsmen, and military and civilian contractors.

At 70, she retired from the Air Force after nearly 20 years, at one of the highest civil service pay grades. She then was hired back as a contractor for the 37th Civil Engineer Squadron at Lackland AFB and the AETC.

The Air Force awarded her the outstanding civilian career service medal and the Maj. Gen. William D. Gilbert Award as outstanding staff officer.

She stopped working when she was 86.

“I have won all kinds of awards, and I was promoted at every opportunity. I really loved what I did,” she says. “The best piece of advice I ever got was from that professor in college.”

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