Women in Engineering – The History, those who made history and the current situation

Women in Engineering – The History, those who made history and the current situation

June 23, 2023

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The International Day of Women in Engineering honour the women who opened the doors of this area and encourage more women to be part of it, as well as companies to hire more women for those functions. This day is recent and aims to raise awareness of the barriers that prevent women from entering this field.

The year was 2014 and Women in Engineering Day was, for the first time, celebrated in the UK on the 23rd of June. From that year on, it became an annual event in which women who made history in this field are remembered and it is raised awareness of the barriers they still face today when studying and working in engineering.

The campaign had a viral effect, spreading to more and more countries until, two years later, the day was recognized by UNESCO. In 2017, it began to be celebrated internationally, by governmental entities, associations, and public and private companies.

The impact of the International Women’s Day in Engineering boosted the statistical analysis of engineering jobs held by women, as well as the social analysis that leads to the fact that there is still no gender parity in this field.


Table of Contents

1.The history of Women in Engineering


2. Women in engineering in the 21st century


The History of Women in Engineering

The field of engineering, like many other areas of science, has rejected contributions from women for centuries. In fact, until the beginning of the century. In the 19th century, most universities did not admit women. Preventing access to knowledge, many women were left behind in the recognition of their contributions in the most diverse scientific and technological advances. The International Day of Women in Engineering was created so that they do not fall into oblivion and to celebrate what they have achieved in the last centuries.

The first female engineer was Elizabeth Bragg, who graduated in 1876. Despite this step, women only began to be valued in the area during the 1st World War. The lack of technicians and engineers in the factories began to be a problem, given that the vast majority of men were called to fight on the war fronts. To address this gap, women began to be trained for specific engineering roles.

Since then, women have become more present in the various branches of engineering. However, they are still far from achieving full gender parity and pay equality in these roles.


The Women in Engineering Who Made History

As noted in the previous section of this article, the first woman to graduate in the field of Engineering was Elizabeth Bragg, who studied Civil Engineering at the University of Berkeley, USA, and received her degree in 1876.

In Europe, the first woman to graduate in Engineering was Rita de Morais Sarmento, who received her certificate in Civil Engineering in 1894, from the Polytechnic Academy of Porto.

Despite these two women, the first woman to work in Engineering was Emily Warren Roebling, who supervised the construction of Ponto de Brooklin, even without a college degree.

Apart from Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering welcomed the first woman in 1918, who graduated from MIT – Edith Clarke.
In the area of Aerospace Engineering, Katherine Johnson made an important contribution, in 1962, in computerized aerospace navigation, which positively impacted NASA’s first missions, including the moon landing.

Mary Jackson was the first African American engineer at NASA, graduating in 1958. There, she contributed to the construction of more sophisticated and resistant planes, based on the analysis of wind tunnels and air movement.

The telecommunications sector also had important inventions made by women. One of them was Hedy Lamarr, who created equipment to mislead Nazi radars during World War II. This system later served to create mobile phones and even Wi-Fi.

Stephanie Kwolek is another big name among women in engineering. Kwolek was a Chemical Engineer when she created a synthetic material called Kevlar in 1964, which is now used in bullet proof vests, helmets, and cables.

In the field of Computer Engineering, Donna Auguste stands out for pateting Apple’s Personal Digital Assistant and, later, for being critical in the launch of the iPhone and iPad.

Still in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Ginni Rometty, today IBM’s CEO, was responsible for the multinational’s expansion into the areas of Cloud Computing and Business Analytics.

Aprille Ericson, a NASA Aerospace and Nautical Engineer, was the first African American woman to receive a PhD in Engineering at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and contributed to the Atlas Instrument satellite, which monitors polar warming and assesses its impact on polar ice caps.

In Mechanical Engineering, Evelyn Wang stands out. As an MIT graduate, Wang is the head of the Mechanical Engineering department at the Institute, where she is revolutionizing the way of teaching mechanical engineering worldwide.


Women in engineering in the 21st century

When looking at the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (the so called “STEM”) it is easy to see that there is a gap between the genders that occupy roles in these branches.

Although the percentage of women in engineering has increased over the last decade, they continue to be underrepresented and, consequently, do not have the same opportunities to make breakthrough contributions.

According to Eurostat, in 2021, women occupied 41% of jobs in science and engineering within the European Union. In those areas, women occupied posts in 28% of the airline sector, 22% of the high-tech sector and 8% of the transport sector.

UNESCO, by its turn, declared, in its #HerEducationOurFuture report, that in 2023, only 31% of jobs globally in research and development in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be occupied by women. About Artificial Intelligence, 22% of jobs are held by women.

As for the reality in Portugal, the Commission for Citizenship and Gender Equality reports that, in 2021, women occupy 15.5% of qualified jobs in industry, construction and crafts, in which engineering is included, despite 59 .5% are specialists in intellectual and scientific activities. In addition to these statistics, wage inequality contributes to widening the gap between genders in this area: on average, women earn 17.3% less as skilled workers in industry, 23.6% less as technicians and intermediate-level professionals and 18% less 8% as intellectual and science specialists.