UNK SciMath Colloquium Presents: ‘Women in American Engineering: Educational Challenges & Opportunities, 1875

Dr. Liubov Kreminska
assistant professor, Department of Physics & Physical Science, 308.865.8144

American engineering education has a gendered history, one which
until relatively recently prevented women from finding a comfortable place
in the predominantly male technical world. For decades, the United States
treated the professional study of technology as men’s territory. Historically,
women in engineering programs, even more than in science, stood out due
to their rarity.  Women studying or working in engineering were popularly
perceived as oddities at best, outcasts at worst, defying traditional gender

As late as the 1950s, women still made up less than one percent of
students in U.S. college and university engineering programs.  Yet by the end
of the twentieth century, women’s presence in American engineering had
become accepted, even encouraged – at least officially.  By the end of the
twentieth century, women made up roughly sixteen percent or more of
students earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering. This story of change
(and its limitations) in the gender dimensions of engineering reflects,
among other things, the changing political context of higher education,
social evolution of gender roles, and most importantly, efforts of women

This talk begins by examining when, why, and how female students
began to enter engineering study, looking at the appearance of a few
female engineers at public land-grant schools and small private institutions
in the late 1800s. My work rapidly moves to WWII, when the industrial
manpower shortage created a temporary movement encouraging women to
consider engineering work.  Iowa State University, Penn State, and many other
schools offered special wartime courses to train women in aeronautical
engineering, industrial engineering, and other non-traditional fields.

During the postwar period,  four of the nation’s most important
technical schools – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI),
Georgia Tech, CalTech, and MIT – moved toward coeducation.  In the heated debates
over whether to admit women, faculty, administrators, students, and alumni
were forced to confront basic issues concerning gender, professionalization,
and the very nature of technical work. In each case, those who resisted
coeducation feared that girls could not fit “naturally” into technical programs,
with their weight of masculine traditions.  Supporters of coeducation had to
defend the belief that women could hold their own in engineering classes,
that admitting women would not undermine the quality of technical training,
and that despite the social factors discouraging girls from pursuing technical
interests, colleges would be able to recruit sufficient numbers.

Even once RPI, Georgia Tech, Caltech, and MIT opened admissions to women,
questions about encouraging and handling female engineering students would
haunt American academic institutions for years to come.

My work analyzes the numerous challenges that the first women to enter engineering education faced,
while describing how these women created various strategies to address their
frustrations and to support fellow women interested in technical careers.  As
illustrated in the controversy several years ago generated by
the comments of former Harvard president Larry Summers, the issue
of women’s place in science and technology still raises sharp feelings.  By
understanding the twentieth-century history of women’s engineering education,
we can approach the discussion of gender and scientific/technical knowledge with
more substantive depth.