Hedy Lamarr once said: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Well said, Hedy!
Lamarr, whose career as an actress made her an unlikely engineer, is most famous for inventing the anti-jamming device originally intended to use against the Nazis, but implemented in 1962 by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba. Lamarr’s invention lives on in modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth.
(Listen to an interview with Richard Rhodes about his new biography: Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr)
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), men still dominate undergraduate programs in engineering. The number of male engineering graduates rose by 11 percent from 2004 to 2009, while the number of female engineering graduates fell by over five percent. In 2009, the percentage of undergraduate degrees from engineering schools that went to women was only 18 percent, a 15-year low.
But it’s not all bad news. MIT has the highest ratio of female to male engineering graduates, with 42 percent in the class of 2010, and women who enter engineering programs generally outdo their male counterparts in relation to grades and accolades.
It’s interesting to note that, at the college level, women tend toward socially connected engineering fields like biomedical and environmental engineering, this according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).
Among school-age children there still remains a pervasive attitude that engineering is uncool, especially for girls. Programs such as FIRST Robotics are working to change this perception. I’ve attended many FIRST events over the years and there’s always a good mix of young men and women at the high-school level. Less so in the junior Lego leagues.
Let’s Celebrate! Accomplished Women in Engineering:
- Beulah Louise Henry – Known in the 1920s and 30s as “the lady Edison” Henry patented many inventions, including a vacuum ice cream freezer, a typewriter that made multiple copies without carbon paper, and a bobbin-less lock-stitch sewing machine. Henry founded manufacturing companies to produce her creations, making a fortune in the process.
- Bonnie Dunbar – A NASA astronaut who earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees in ceramic engineering from the University of Washington and a doctorate in mechanical/biomedical engineering from the University of Houston. While working at Rockwell International, Dunbar helped to develop the ceramic tiles that enable space shuttles to survive re-entry. She has had an opportunity to test those tiles first hand as a four-time astronaut, including a stint on the first shuttle mission to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir.
- Katherine Stinson – The first female graduate of NC State University’s College of Engineering. Initially denied admission as a freshman, Stinson graduated vice president of her class and was hired by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as its first female engineer. She went on to found the Society of Women Engineers.
- Judith Resnik – This Challenger astronaut and electrical engineer received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1970 and a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1977.
- Lillian Gilbreth – Considered a pioneer in the field of time-and-motion studies, Gilbreth showed companies how to increase efficiency and production through budgeting of time, energy, and money. She is “Member No. 1” of the Society of Women Engineers.
- Becky Schroeder – Ten-year-old Schroeder invented Glo-sheet paper, which enables people to write in the dark. She is the youngest female to receive a U.S. patent.
Words to Live By – Top Reads for Girls and Young Women Interested in Engineering:
- Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh
- You Can Be a Woman Engineer by Judith Love Cohen
- Is There an Engineer Inside You? A Comprehensive Guide to Career Decisions in Engineering by Celeste Baine
- Setting the Record Straight: The History and Evolution of Women’s Professional Achievement in Engineering by Betty Reynolds and Jill Tietjen.
- Cool Careers in Engineering for Girls by Ceel Pasternak, Linda Thornburg, Sheila Widnall
- Managing Martians by Donna Shirley
- Patently Female: From AZT to TV Dinners, Stories of Women Inventors and Their Breakthrough Ideas by Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek
Visit the National Engineer’s Week Foundation to find engineering organizations, clubs and events in your area.
Are you are female engineer with a story to tell? How were you inspired to become an engineer? How can we do more to encourage young women to go into engineering?