A history of women in engineering education

Photo by Hannah Jane Baumann Student Publications

 On March 2, Iowa State University’s Dr. Amy Bix came to campus to give a lecture on “How Coeds Came to Georgia Tech: A History of Women and Engineering Education.” 

Her lecture discussed the overall history of gender inequality in engineering, as well as the backlash surrounding women’s integration into engineering institutions and the changing roles of women during eras such as World War II and the Cold War. 

Throughout the lecture, Bix included specific examples of the disparity between the genders, including sexist ads and “engineering toys” specifically geared towards young males. 

Bix even made reference to comics from Tech’s old humor magazine The Yellow Jacket  that mocked women in the engineering programs on campus. 

Although the majority of Bix’s lecture focused on the struggles of women’s acceptance and integration into engineering programs, she concluded her lecture by focusing on the overall improvement in the number of female engineers over previous years. 

Bix also noted the more positive sentiment that now surrounds the acceptance of women in engineering, a sentiment the Technique discussed with the co-sponsors of the event from Tech’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

“I really enjoyed Dr. Bix’s talk,” third-year BMED and SWE member Gabrielle Gershon shared. 

“I think what surprised me most was how much backlash there originally was against women in engineering. I thought it was more of a general cultural concept and didn’t realize there were such aggressive ads against women in engineering and that female students were so constantly harassed because of what they were studying. So, yeah, that really surprised me.”

Gershon then went on to connect her own work in women’s outreach to the points Bix made about the significance of encouraging the involvement of younger generations of women.

“I also thought it was really cool how Dr. Bix talked about reaching out to younger generations to get a lot of high school and even younger girls interested in engineering. That’s a lot of what we do in Society of Women Engineers, and I think outreach like that has really helped boost the number of women in engineering.”

Gershon also shared her personal experience as a woman pursuing engineering on campus. 

“In biomedical engineering there are definitely a lot more women than in other types of engineering on campus, but I have definitely been in classes that are filled with a lot more men than women,” Gershon began. 

“Just last year I was in a group project where seven of our nine members were male. But I think the general idea of women being present in the classroom is a lot more accepted now and the situation for women attending school to become engineers has definitely improved. Most people on campus are accepting of women being in engineering classrooms so that has definitely been a big change for the better.” 

Fellow SWE member and second-year EE Salmata Barrie agreed with Gershon and Dr. Bix on the importance of outreach to younger women. 

“I think the best thing about the outreach we do with SWE is that the women we connect with are really able to see themselves at Tech despite things like race, gender and socio-economic status,” Barrie began. 

“In terms of the socio-economic issues which Dr. Bix touched on as well, I think Georgia Tech does a great job and has a lot of resources as a public institution to welcome students despite their financial background so that it isn’t just women who have parents with a background in engineering who can come here.”

Barrie also expressed her personal experience in two different engineering majors on campus, once again emphasizing the drastic change in female acceptance at Tech.

“My experience in environmental engineering and electrical engineering are both pretty different in terms of the gender distribution in my classes,” Barrie shared. 

“There are a lot more men in electrical than there were in environmental. But I have never felt out of place or isolated at all. We’re all there to learn and I feel like everyone’s pretty accepting of that.” 

The Technique then asked both Gershon and Barrie about women in STEM beyond the scope of Tech’s campus, specifically in regards to Katherine Johnson. 

Johnson, one of the first African American women to work as a NASA employee, died just days before the lecture at the age of 101. She was one of the first three African American students to attend West Virginia University, and her work in orbital mechanics at NASA assisted with the success of many crewed spaceflights, including the first ever. 

Gershon gave her perspective on the media’s portrayal of women in STEM, specifically in reference to the tribute of Johnson’s role at NASA in the movie Hidden Figures. Gershon also connected this idea back into Dr. Bix’s lecture. 

“I think lately the media has been portraying women in STEM like Katherine Johnson in a much more positive and beneficial light such as with movies like Hidden Figures,” Gershon began. 

“Those movies portray women as much more capable than things such as the ‘computer hacker Barbie’ Dr. Bix mentioned where Barbie still needed help from her male friends in the storybook.”