How Women Got Through the Doors of Engineering Schools

Amy Sue Bix describes how 20th-century pioneers began breaking down the gender barrier

Loading the podcast player...

Stephen Cass: Hi, I’m Stephen Cass, and welcome to “Techwise Conversations.”

According to the latest data from the U.S. National Science Foundation, women make up less than 30 percent of university graduates in the fields of engineering and computer science. That’s a markedly lower rate of participation than for physics or mathematics, and considerably less for the biosciences, where half—or more—of graduates are women.

In trying to account for this disparity, history may provide some answers. Even more so than science and medicine, engineering has historically been perceived as a masculine field. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that women began to make inroads into engineering programs at U.S. universities and colleges.

Amy Sue Bix looks at three of these universities—Georgia Tech, Caltech, and MITand how they and their students coped with the arrival of women, in her recent book, Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women.

She joins us now by phone from her office at Iowa State University, where she is the director of the Center for Historical Studies of Technology and Science.

Amy, welcome to the program.

Amy Sue Bix: Thank you very much.

Stephen Cass: As I mentioned in the introduction, historically the gender barrier to women seems to have been especially high in engineering as compared to science and medicine. Why was that?

Amy Sue Bix: Yes, well, that's an excellent point. The thing to keep in mind is that there are several factors going on here. There have always been women in science, technology, and medicine, but it's an important matter to look at the history of how they got there. You have women in sciences as far back as the scientific revolution, and even before that. Some women were able to get a foothold in science by helping their husbands or their brothers, for example: Caroline Herschel in astronomy, Marie Lavoisier in chemistry, and then when you get to the United States in the 1800s, with establishment of the women's colleges, pretty much all the prestigious women's colleges put a heavy emphasis on science for women.

Vassar leads the way: In hiring astronomer Maria Mitchell, they build this incredible astronomical observatory for her, and she really trains almost the whole next generation of women astronomers. So even though it was extremely difficult—there's lots of discrimination, women with degrees in science have a lot of trouble getting jobs when they come out, well into the 20th century—women could always get a foothold in science in some way in some areas. Similarly, with medicine, going back to prehistoric times, you have women as healers, you have women as midwives, and again in the United States in the 1800s, nontraditional, alternative medical schools led the way. They were encouraging women to study medicine when mainstream medical schools were blocking them. So women could find ways to get a foothold in medicine, but none of that works for engineering. None of the women's colleges teach engineering. There's no reason for them to, because historically engineering has been associated with the military; it had been associated with construction jobs, building the Erie Canal, building railroads; associated with industry, machine shops—by and large those weren't places where women were supposed to be, so there was no reason to teach women engineering. So more so than either science or medicine, engineering was always paired with masculinity.

Stephen Cass: You write about some of the difficulties, in the decades after World War II, that women experienced when they entered previously all-male engineering programs, and you focus on Georgia Tech, Caltech, and MIT. What were some of the common threads, and what were some of the differences between these three institutions in that transition period?

Amy Sue Bix: Well, some of the common threads are simply that all three of them, and a number of other schools, assumed that engineering by definition must be male. MIT had been admitting women since the late 1800s, but they'd always really been an afterthought, they'd always been marginalized by and large; even though on paper they were coeducational, MIT really had a very masculine identity in practice. And all the way through there is an assumption that high-powered science and engineering must be male: that admitting women would only waste faculty time, and it would distract male students. And Georgia Tech, and Caltech in particular, identified their traditions of excellence as being male only. And alumni, and administrators, and students, at least some of them assumed that in order to maintain that excellence, they had to be all male. So that's the common ground. The differences are: Georgia Tech starts admitting women in the early 1950s, partially under legal pressure, because they're a public school; there's a test case, a high-school woman in Atlanta who was interested in studying engineering, but since Georgia Tech was all male, she literally had no place to go for public education in her home state, so she threatens to file a lawsuit, women's groups in Atlanta back her up, it just so happens the president of Georgia Tech at that time, he had a wife and daughter who were interested in technical subjects, so his sympathies were toward coeducation, but he has to fight by and large what's a very conservative board of regents, which grudgingly agrees to admit women to Georgia Tech in 1952 under very limited circumstances. So Georgia Tech really goes coeducational partly as a result of inside male allies, but also because it's a public school. Caltech, by contrast, is private, so it doesn't face that same pressure. And even though they admit women graduate students slowly and grudgingly after World War II, they remain firmly male only on the undergraduate level until the 1960s, when their male undergraduates start rebelling, part of the general student rebellion. Among other things, what the Caltech students are saying is they're not happy at their school—they like getting good education, but they're miserable. What they say is, Caltech turns out brilliant scientists and engineers who are social idiots, who have no idea how to talk to a woman, and they promise that if Caltech makes their lives more human by admitting women, the male students will behave better. They'll dress better, they'll have better manners in the dining hall—they even promise that if Caltech relieves their boredom by admitting women, men won't smoke so much marijuana. So at Caltech, it really is pressure from male undergraduates. These are the years when other all-male schools are admitting women for the first time. For example, my alma mater, Princeton. So there’s pressure on Caltech to join that group of schools that are admitting women in the late 1960s. But they didn't do it out of a feminist sentiment; they never really expected that many women would want to come to Caltech, or would qualify: They were worried that they would have trouble finding enough good women, so they don't really take women's education seriously.; they're admitting women to make their male engineers and scientists happier.

Stephen Cass: I know you focused on U.S. engineering programs, but did you glean any insight into how the experiences of women in the rest of the world compared with those in the United States, in these engineering programs?

Amy Sue Bix: Well, that's one of the things that gets into the history. Some of the advocates for bringing more women into engineering in the 1950s were pointing at the Soviet Union, and saying “Hey, the Soviet Union is training women as engineers, they're not making the mistake of wasting half their talent.” So, that Cold War mentality comes into the debate over American women in engineering, and of course in the decades since then, sociologists and psychologists and education experts have done a number of studies, really to investigate the question of why some other countries, not universally, but some other countries do seem to have more success than the United States in drawing women into engineering. And it's a very complicated issue—but for example, my husband's country of Turkey, when he got his engineering degree there, he was used to having many more female classmates than he would have typically seen in an American classroom. So it definitely does vary, not just according to time, but according to where you are in the world.

Stephen Cass: What do you think are the main issues for female students in engineering programs today?

Amy Sue Bix: Well, one of the issues for women in engineering today is the questions that have been facing women all along: The question of how to succeed in what's an academically rigorous field, how to find a good job, especially when economic times are tough, and how to make that engineering education part of a happy life. One of the things that you see with the debate over women in engineering is the ongoing question of how to balance family and career, so people are still talking about that, the question of what image women in engineering want to present, how to encourage other women to consider nontraditional fields, so today it's certainly not as if all problems for women in engineering have been miraculously solved, but there's no question conditions are different: You look at my own Iowa State University, and there are all sorts of wonderful programs for women in science and engineering. There are specialized learning communities; there are groups such as the Society of Women Engineers, organizations such as the IEEE and the National Academy of Engineering have all sorts of support programs for women in engineering, so the climate is in many ways very different than it was just a couple generations ago. And in talking to women who are majoring in engineering today, I really see both sides of the picture. There are some who can't even imagine the discrimination and the outright hatred that earlier generations of women engineers faced. They say they've never had any type of problems, and that's terrific. But then I talk to other women who are studying engineering in college today, and they say yeah, they're still not entirely comfortable, they still get sexist jokes, they still feel out of place, they still have the experience of being the only woman amidst a sea of men in the upper level classes, so today the experience really varies according to individual women, and the atmosphere of the school, but it's not as if all problems have been solved—by a long shot.

Stephen Cass: Well, Amy, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Amy Sue Bix: Thank you very much, my pleasure.

Stephen Cass: We’ve been talking with Amy Sue Bix about her new book, Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Stephen Cass.

This interview was recorded Thursday, 17 April 2014.

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein

Photo: Taner Edis

Read more “Techwise Conversations” or find us in iTunes.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.