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Girls Coming to Tech! A History of American Engineering Education for Women (Review)

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Restraints on women in engineering lasted for decades amid sexism and stereotyping. What’s different today?


The posting below is a review by Robin Tatu senior editorial consultant, at Prism magazine, of the book, Girls Coming to Tech! A History of American Engineering Education for Women, by Amy Sue Bix (MIT Press 2014, 376 pages). It is from the May, 2015 issue of Prism, Volume 24, No. 8, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education. [] 1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036-2479. © Copyright 2015. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Girls Coming to Tech! A History of American Engineering Education for Women (Review)



The history of educating female engineers is part of a larger narrative of gender bias in America. Women were long assumed to lack the intelligence, stamina, and emotional bandwidth for the “hard sciences.” And as Iowa State University historian of technology and science Amy Sue Bix notes, even the term “coed” set females apart from the norm, encoding “men’s position at the center of campus life and women’s role as an asymmetric accompaniment.”

Nowhere has marginalization been more entrenched than in the discipline of engineering. In 2013, women accounted for only 19.1 percent of students achieving engineering bachelor’s degrees – about the same proportion as two decades earlier. That’s still a huge leap from the 1950s, when women earned just 1 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees. Yet challenges persist, as witnessed most recently in Silicon Valley’s efforts to diversify a top echelon glaringly sparse on female tech execs.

Girls Coming to Tech! offers a thorough examination of the patterns of rejection, resistance, and change that have shaped U.S. academic engineering from its earliest years to the present. Surveying women who took degrees and found work as professional engineers, the author found that early on, female students were considered an anomaly. In the late 1880s, for example, Ellen Swallow Richards, the wife of MIT’s engineering dean and later, an unpaid instructor, was prevented from receiving a Ph.D. at the school, though she managed to raise substantial funds to establish a separate women’s laboratory, lounge, and restroom. Still, even single-digit percentages could provoke alarm and often were framed in the language of “invasion.” Unease could be detected in the persistent banter. A 1938 Cornell administrator joked of the “temerity” of a woman who had joined the engineering school and warned of a subsequent influx “if you are not careful.”

Defended in terms of expense, institutional obstruction was only gradually – and grudgingly – eroded. Gender upheavals created by the Second World War, the focus of chapters two and three, overturned many barriers. War made engineering a patriotic imperative, and by 1945, there were 282,235 women at schools across the country funded through the government’s Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program. RCA, General Electric, and aircraft industries Grumman and Curtis-Wright also trained wartime “cadettes.” While most of these female substitutes were discouraged from earning a degree or finding permanent employment, for the first time they constituted a critical mass. Those who persisted established support networks through clubs, newsletters, and conventions. From its outset in 1952, the Society of Women Engineers encouraged industry mentoring of female engineers and engineering students, as well as outreach to high school girls.

Chapters four through six highlight the path of three notable engineering schools. Georgia Tech allowed coeducation only after legal pressure in the 1950s to ensure in-state public engineering education. At Caltech, it was the male students who petitioned for change, but not for women’s sake – girls, it was argued, could “civilize” men on campus, supply girlfriends, and stanch the flow of good male candidates to Berkeley and Stanford. Even at MIT, nominally coeducational since the 1870s, the minuscule number of women allowed in – 14 each year – was linked to the limits of the sole female dormitory. Some argued the benefits of simply eliminating women, but after alumna Katherine McCormick bequeathed $1.5 million for new housing in 1960, applicant numbers soared.

Beyond the statistics, Bix provides an insightful sociological study gleaned from school ditties, newspapers, pinups, and cartoons. For decades, a chauvinist agenda drove the conversation, often forcing “slide-rule Sallies” to defend their femininity. The book’s closing chapter underscores the importance of campus advocacy and national groups such as SWE and WEPAN (Women in Engineering ProActive Network). The narrative also illustrates how meaningful change is achieved by people with influence and the ability to work from within – deans, school presidents, professors, and alumni. In recent decades, Georgia Tech and MIT have led the way not only in increasing female student numbers but also in retaining diverse faculty and addressing concerns of harassment. This excellent study of past discrimination and present best practices should find a place in every university and engineering library.