I won’t lie, I chose engineering as my field of study half out of interest and half because of my desire to break the mold. As the years have gone by, I’ve been collecting both knowledge and experience, hoping to one day write some revealing exposé about women in engineering and cause the whole education system to reform. Well, I’m not there yet, but here’s what I’ve gathered so far…
First, some numbers: Did you know more women than men attend university? In fact, women make up approximately 55% of the undergraduate students in Canada, yet only about 20% of these women will go into engineering or applied sciences (see http://ewh.ieee.org/soc/es/Nov1999/10/BEGIN.HTM). That means 11% of the student body is female scientists and engineers. Now remembering that this 11% has to get split up between the various departments and fields… well, that means very few girls per class.
After hearing the facts, I asked the simple question, “But why?” There is a general consensus (but no proven research) that girls aren’t good at math. That science is for boys. That we should just stick to the other stuff. Not science! Not engineering! The problem actually begins much before high school students fill in their university applications.
It’s in our homes, in our elementary/junior high/high schools, and in our society. It’s a bit discouraging, knowing that the whole system can’t be improved just like that and that girls are going to believe these things, even if they’re not true. Obviously, I’m not famous enough yet to tweet about it and have the whole world react. But I prepared a little something for the girls:
So ladies. To help motivate you, to help you tap into your inner feminist (and scientist!), to show you how you could change the world, I found a few inspiring women who fearlessly tackled applied sciences.
To kickstart the list, let me introduce Lise Meitner, who obtained a doctoral degree in physics in 1905, the second to do so at the University of Vienna. After completing such a prestigious program, you would assume scientists all over Europe would be interested to have her work with them. Nope. Her only job offer was at a gas lamp factory. With a Ph.D.! Equipped with ridiculous amounts of perseverance and intelligence, she accomplished all her goals, from becoming a full-fledged professor of physics at the University of Berlin (the first woman to do so) and a famous researcher in Europe. But her journey was not an easy one. She was not allowed to attend classes at certain universities, it took years before her admittance to a prestigious research institute despite stellar work, and she was even basically robbed of a Nobel Prize when she discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn but only he received the coveted award. It’s a difficult story to hear, but quite inspiring, in the way she forced her way into the field of physics and never gave up. Also her cool factor goes up quite a bit when you find out element 109, meitnerium, is named after her.
Stephanie Kwolek, a Polish-American chemist, invented poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide. Or Kevlar, if you don’t recognize the scientific name. She worked at DuPont, a famous chemical company, to raise money to go to medical school, but ended up liking it enough to drop her idea of being a doctor in favor of a career as a chemist. In the experiments her team conducted, waste was generated and discarded. But our girl here used her passion for science in convincing someone to test the waste. And boom, Kevlar was born.
Ursula M. Burns
I feel like by now, you’re all hoping for a more recent tale of girl power. Well meet Ursula M. Burns, Madam Chairman of Xerox Corporation. Our girl Ursula rocks a B. Eng. in Mechanical Engineering, as well as a Master of Science in the same field. She began working at Xerox as an intern, and slowly rose to the top. Her biggest accomplishment is not a complete revolutionizing of engineering or an invention or a Nobel prize. Instead, she is the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company. And also the first woman to replace a woman as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. So for that, we definitely give her a good clap.
Emily Warren Roebling
Ever heard of a little thing called the Brooklyn Bridge? The civil engineer who designed it, John A. Roebling, was injured shortly after beginning the construction (and eventually passed away because of complications). Before dying, he handed the project over to his son, Washington, who coincidentally enough became ill and developed a debilitating condition. In order to save the project, his wife Emily Warren Roebling stepped in to oversee the work. During her time as the technical leader, Emily studied everything from higher mathematics to cable construction to bridge calculations. Not only did she bring the project to completion and essentially become a civil engineer in the process, she fought to have her husband remain the official chief engineer on paper (thus giving him most of the credit).
Next time you happen to be in New York, now you’ll be able to appreciate this bridge so much more knowing that a woman with no background in science tackled and completed successfully what many consider the most difficult civil engineering project ever.
So next time you walk into your classroom, I recommend sitting beside a girl. She might just be the next great scientist/engineer, and trust me, you’re gonna want in on that.