Presently, numerous women are employed in diverse job positions within the global Electrical and Electronics Engineering industry. In the United States alone, by 2022, around 9,492+ women were working as electrical engineers, and 4049+ women were employed as electronics engineers. The population of women in these professions continues to grow steadily, experiencing an annual increase of 2-3%.
Women’s rise in Electrical and Electronics Engineering began when a woman, highly passionate about A.C. Power Systems, entered the scene. Edith Clarke was hailed as the pioneer, becoming the first female electrical engineering graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during the early 1900s. This brilliant individual is acknowledged as the inventor of the Clarke Calculator and the first woman to work as an on-site electrical engineer. Subsequently, Edith Clarke made history by becoming the inaugural female electrical engineering professor in the United States.
Hedy Lamarr, the actress during World War II, played a crucial role in the invention of radio frequency-hopping technology. This groundbreaking technology, which she contributed to, possessed the remarkable ability to avoid interference and interception. Over time, her innovative creation found practical applications on U.S. Navy ships and became integral to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices.
Emily Roebling emerged as a pioneering advocate in the early days of breaking gender barriers in STEM fields. Her notable achievement lies in her significant involvement in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was finalized in 1883.
When her spouse, who held the esteemed position of Chief Engineer for the project, fell ill and was confined to his bed, Roebling took on the responsibility of serving as the intermediary between him and the engineering team. She skillfully managed day-to-day project operations, handled technical challenges, oversaw materials, conducted stress analysis, supervised construction activities, and performed calculations with such proficiency that she eventually assumed the role of the project’s de facto leader.
Throughout the endeavor, she tirelessly advocated for her husband to retain his original title of Chief Engineer. Upon the bridge’s completion, Emily achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first person to traverse it, thereby acknowledging her instrumental contribution to its triumphant realization.
Martha Coston made her mark in engineering history by pioneering the development of a signaling flare system called Coston Flares, which remains in use by the U.S. Navy today.
At age 21, Coston was widowed with four children to provide for. Determined to overcome her challenging circumstances, she stumbled upon a design for a pyrotechnic flare in her late husband’s notebook. This discovery ignited her innovative thinking, and she created an effective signal flare. Over nearly a decade, Coston dedicated herself to perfecting the design, aiming for brightness, multiple colors, and long-lasting performance to enable effective communication.
Her relentless efforts paid off, and in 1859, she obtained a patent for her invention. The U.S. Navy recognized her achievement by purchasing the rights to the flares for a substantial sum of $20,000. This special acknowledgment was particularly significant for women during that era.
Lillian Gilbreth is celebrated as a trailblazer in industrial engineering and psychology, often called the ‘Mother of Modern Management.’ She achieved the distinction of being the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She collaborated with General Electric to enhance the design of household appliances and kitchenware. As one of her sons said, she would boldly enter a male-dominated field, even if it meant going through the kitchen door. Ironically, despite her accomplishments, she was reputedly a dreadful cook.
Suppose you find the challenges of being a modern working mother daunting; spare a moment to consider the accomplishments of Lillian, who managed without the convenience of today’s time-saving technologies. As a mother of twelve, Gilbreth excelled in developing industrial management techniques and demonstrated her exceptional ability to balance a career and a family. The California Monthly even hailed her as a ‘genius in the art of living.’
You are likely familiar with Kevlar, an incredibly robust synthetic material that surpasses steel in strength by a factor of five. Due to its exceptional resistance to corrosion and flames, Kevlar plays a pivotal role in manufacturing bulletproof vests, as well as various commonplace items such as safety helmets, camping equipment, snow skis, and cables.
Stephanie Kwolek, one of the pioneering female research chemists, deserves our gratitude for this remarkable high-strength material. Alongside the discovery of Kevlar, Kwolek has also been granted 17 U.S. patents for her other notable research endeavors.
When driving in heavy rain, take a moment to acknowledge Mary Anderson. Although she wasn’t an automotive engineer by profession, we owe her gratitude for inventing a practical feature still utilized in our vehicles today: the windscreen wiper. Her concept was elegantly simple—a rubber blade connected to a spring-loaded arm that would sweep across the windscreen, effectively clearing away rain, snow, and dust. It was a stroke of genius.
Nowadays, windscreen wipers are a standard feature in all modern cars. However, the initial reception to this innovation could have been more enthusiastic within the automotive industry. When Mary attempted to sell the rights to her invention in 1905, one company dismissed it, stating, “We do not believe it possesses sufficient commercial value to warrant our involvement in its sale.” The skeptics believed the device would distract drivers, having to operate it while seeing it move in front of them. Unfortunately, Mary’s patent expired before the wiper gained widespread acceptance during the automotive industry’s subsequent boom.
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, born to suffragist Harriet Eaton Stanton Blatch and granddaughter of women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton, achieved several milestones in her life. After completing her education in Latin and mathematics at Horace Mann School in New York, she attended Cornell University. She became the first woman to earn an engineering degree in 1905. During the same year, she broke barriers again by becoming the first woman to be inducted as a junior American Society of Civil Engineers member.
Stanton’s career included significant contributions to the American Bridge Company and the New York City Board of Water Supply. Despite meeting the requirements for full membership, she took legal action against the ASCE for their refusal to promote her to that status. Stanton’s determination to remain in the engineering profession, even against her first husband’s wishes, ultimately led to their divorce.
Throughout her life, Stanton remained dedicated to her passion for engineering. She continued to contribute to the field through her work with the New York State Public Service Commission and pursued real estate development. Her remarkable journey came to an end in 1971 when she passed away.
Alice Parker submitted a patent application for a heating system that drew in cool air into the furnace, utilized a natural gas heat exchanger to heat it, and subsequently distributed the warmed air through ducts.
Although Parker’s specific design was not implemented, it inspired subsequent natural gas-based duct heating systems that remain in use today. Before her patent, the heat was exclusively derived from wood and coal.
Adopting natural gas heating systems alleviated the inconvenience of purchasing or chopping wood for homeowners, thereby reducing the risk of fires caused by overnight fireplace usage.
Parker’s achievement in obtaining a patent is especially noteworthy, considering the absence of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement during that period.
Evelyn N. Wang
Evelyn N. Wang, a mechanical engineer, and professor, was born in New York and raised in Southern California, where her father worked as a professor at UCLA. During her youth, she traveled internationally as a youth orchestra member but eventually settled in the Northeast. In 2000, she obtained her undergraduate degree from MIT and earned her doctorate from Stamford University in 2006.
After completing postdoctoral research at Bell Labs, Wang returned to MIT in 2007 as a faculty member. Her primary focus in her work and analysis has been developing solar-powered devices to extract water from the atmosphere. One notable achievement was the creation of a technology that allows water to be trapped in a metal-organic framework overnight, with solar energy’s heat releasing the water during the day.
Wang’s water extraction device gained recognition and was honored as one of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2017 by Scientific American and the World Economic Forum. Presently, she holds multiple roles, serving as the Department of Mechanical Engineering chair, the Device Research Laboratory director, and the Gail E. Kendall Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Women’s contribution to electrical engineering holds significant importance for various reasons, including its influence in attracting more women to join the field. Why exactly does the presence of women in this field serve as a driving force to inspire others to join? The reason is the widespread misrepresentation of women in this industry, leading to a lack of female participation and retention.
The misrepresentation of women exists across all branches of engineering and is not unfounded. Discrimination against women in electrical engineering is fueled by misconceptions about their work ethic, despite their proven strong performance. They are often perceived as lacking courage and face stereotypes. Additionally, women may encounter unequal pay and limited opportunities for promotion, which further discourages their engagement. These factors contribute to a sense of underrepresentation and a need for equal opportunities for women, despite their competence in fulfilling their roles.
However, these challenges may worsen if women do not stand up for workplace equality and persist in the field. By enrolling in and completing their studies in this demanding discipline, women in electrical engineering demonstrate remarkable bravery and earn the prestigious title of engineer. Their courage shines through as they fearlessly pursue equal opportunities, disregarding the perceived barriers. Consequently, their determination opens doors for other women to apply and secure positions as electrical engineers in various organizations.
The ongoing efforts to create a stronger and more inclusive workplace for women in electrical engineering are underway, but they require immediate action. What are the potential benefits of these changes, even if nothing is altered? There are several positive outcomes associated with addressing and rectifying this issue. Firstly, electrical engineering will gain recognition as a domain where women empower and support each other.
A sense of community and allyship can be fostered among women in this field. Secondly, with an influx of new women joining, a support network and collaboration opportunities will always be readily available.
Over time, as more women enter the field of electrical engineering, it will become known as a place where women have the power to uplift one another and constantly remind themselves of their strengths as they progress. This persistence will also help male counterparts recognize the value of retaining women in the industry, as their unwavering strength is essential for upholding their reputation.