What Does an Engineer Look Like? Women Engineers and the Movement for Social Change

An image of a woman in a fancy fur hat

Laura Micheletti Puaca

When twenty-two-year-old software engineer Isis Anchalee was featured in a recruitment campaign (in the advertisement she is referred to as Isis Wegner) for her employer OneLogin last summer, she did not anticipate the barrage of negative comments that quickly followed. The advertisement in which Anchalee appeared seemed quite innocuous, showing a photograph of her wearing a simple black t-shirt emblazoned with the company’s name, alongside a quotation about getting along well with her co-workers. Critics, however, soon unleashed their scorn. Some questioned the seriousness of the advertisement as well as the company’s judgment in showcasing a woman. One Facebook user made fun of OneLogin’s “weird haphazard branding” that seemed designed to “[appeal] to dudes.” Another charged that “there’s [sic] clearly some comedians in the marketing department.” Others took issue with particular aspects of Wegner’s appearance, such as her smile which was deemed too “sexy,” while another expressed more general doubts that “people with brains . . . [will] buy this image of what a female software engineer looks like.”[1]

In response to the backlash, Anchalee created the social media campaign #ILookLikeAnEngineer, which has taken the internet by storm. Eager to redefine the face of engineering, thousands of female engineers from around the world have participated so far by posting photos of themselves and others in an astonishingly wide range of scenarios, along with the descriptive hashtag. The photos show female engineers not only presenting their research at conferences, posing with Mars Rovers that they designed, and wearing hard hats at on-site visits, but also being crowned Miss Delaware USA, roller derbying, and being awarded a patent while eight months pregnant.

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement is significant because it simultaneously highlights long-standing obstacles faced by women in the field as well as continuing efforts to effect change. Although women have made tremendous strides in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) over the past half-century, they have done so unevenly. In comparison to the biological sciences, where women earned 59.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2012, less than twenty percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering went to female students that year.[2] As depressing as that statistic is, those numbers represent a significant improvement when compared to previous eras. In 1970, for example, women earned roughly one percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees; earlier in the century, that figure was even smaller—a fraction of one percent.[3]

The historic exclusion and marginalization of women engineers is connected, in part, to the development of the field. One of the earliest venues for educating engineers in the United States was the thoroughly masculine U.S. Military Academy at West Point established in 1802. In the following decades a small number of antebellum colleges, universities, and polytechnic schools began offering various levels of engineering instruction, but they did not welcome women either.[4] It deserves pointing out that, during much of the nineteenth century, most practitioners actually established their credentials through on-the job-training as opposed to formal degrees. Yet they did so in places such as railroad yards, machine shops, and survey sites, where women were similarly unwanted. That many of the tasks involved were physically demanding and even dangerous further bolstered the perception that engineering was not suitable for women.[5]

The expansion of engineering education in the late nineteenth century provided limited opportunities for women to enter the field. As historian Amy Sue Bix explains in her recent book on women’s engineering education, a handful of female students studied the subject at newly-established co-educational land-grant colleges during this period. One of the earliest was Elizabeth Bragg Cumming, who earned a civil engineering bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1876. Although it does not appear that Cumming pursued a career in the field, examples of women who did include Elmina Wilson, who received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Iowa State College in 1892 before earning her master’s degree there two years later, and Bertha Lamme, who completed a mechanical engineering degree in 1893 from Ohio State University.[6]

Other women, meanwhile, were educated on-the-job, as was still customary for many of their male counterparts. Most of the women who pursued this path did so in connection with their own families’ businesses. One of the best well known is Emily Warren Roebling, who oversaw much of the building of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s after her husband—whose firm was responsible for the project—fell ill. Another notable example is Kate Gleason. Although Gleason took engineering courses both at Cornell University and at what later became Rochester Institute of Technology, beginning in the 1880s she acquired much of her technical expertise working for her family’s machine tool company, which she helped run. Her professional contributions became so well known that, in 1914, Gleason was elected as a full member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the first woman to achieve that honor.[7]

Few female engineers enjoyed such accolades, however. Nora Stanton Blatch, the granddaughter of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton, received her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell University. After graduating with honors in 1905, she began working in the field and joined the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a junior member shortly thereafter. But when she reached the age limit for junior status in 1915 and applied for the next level of membership, the ASCE refused to promote her and dropped her from its rolls, claiming that she was not qualified despite her work experience. In response, she brought a lawsuit against the society but lost her case. It was not until 2015 that the ASCE revisited this decision and decided to advance her posthumously to the status of ASCE Fellow in light of what it now called her “significant contributions.”[8]

The ASCE was hardly alone in its mistreatment of women. In 1903 the national engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi not only overturned the decision of a local chapter to admit a female student but also amended its constitution to state explicitly that only men were eligible. Later, in the 1930s, the society agreed to recognize women’s achievements with a special “women’s badge” but made clear that recipients were neither members nor allowed to pay initiation fees. This practice continued for decades.[9] Other organizations, such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, had long been reported to discourage applications from female applicants.[10] As a result of these formal and informal conventions, women engineers’ representation in professional societies was abysmally low. Historian Margaret W. Rossiter has found that there were only three women (and thousands of men) in the American Institute of Electrical Engineers as late as 1942. Other engineering groups, such as those organized for chemical, mining, safety, and illuminating engineers, apparently had no female members until after the Second World War.[11]

Indeed, the Second World War played a major role in expanding opportunities to women in engineering. Wartime demands for technically-trained personnel, coupled with the shortage of male students, resulted in the widespread recruitment of women by schools and industries alike. During the war, women’s engineering enrollments at U.S. institutions of higher education increased by seventy-five percent, as female students pursued degrees not only at coeducational universities and women’s colleges, but also at the twenty-nine previously all-male engineering schools that began admitting women for the first time. Between 1940 and 1945, 181 women earned engineering degrees, an all-time high. Hundreds of thousands more trained to be temporary engineering assistants, or “engineering aides,” through short-term non-degree programs sponsored by the industry and government, such as the federally-funded Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program.[12]

Although many of these developments were viewed as short-term wartime measures, they helped pave the way for new changes in the postwar period. When peace returned, a number of women, who had previously worked as engineering aides, flocked to engineering degree programs to upgrade their status and continue their training. There, they joined women who had first entered during the war and who were still completing their degrees. Although women’s postwar engineering enrollments were small in relation to men’s—less than one percent—the number of women graduating with engineering degrees increased roughly threefold when compared to the war years. Between 1946 and 1950, more than 500 women—drawn from both the wartime and postwar cohorts—earned undergraduate engineering degrees.[13]

Both in school and at work, however, women engineers still often found themselves unwanted or relegated to the lowest rungs of the profession. Despite having been vigorously recruited just a few years before, they became painfully aware of society’s clear preference for educating and employing male veterans. The postwar emphasis on domesticity, moreover, helped heighten the long-standing stereotype that women were not suited for engineering and should stick to more conventional pursuits.

In response to the postwar backlash, women engineers across the country began organizing. Although there had been some limited attempts to do this in the prewar period, such as University of Michigan’s “T-Square Society” that thirteen female students in engineering and architecture formed in 1914, women’s engineering groups now sprung up in far-flung places such as Iowa, Indiana, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.[14] The largest-scale response came in the spring of 1950 when members of some of these groups decided to coordinate their efforts by establishing the national Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in an effort to advance women’s education and employment in the field.

Throughout the postwar period, SWE served as the principal professional organization for women engineers. The society worked closely with parents, teachers, employers, government officials, and female students in an effort to shape public opinion about engineering as a career for women. Many of the society’s activities centered on educational outreach initiatives aimed at providing personal encouragement to girls and young women. To that end, SWE published vocational guidance literature, offered scholarships, and provided role models and mentors for female students. SWE members also brought visibility to women engineers by holding conferences where they presented their research, participating in high school career days, organizing career conferences of their own, and appearing on radio and television shows to discuss their work.[15]

In all of these efforts, SWE members sought—much like Isis Anchalee—to redefine how the public perceived engineers. They similarly called attention to women’s professional contributions while also combatting stereotypes about the presumed inability of “career women” to balance engineering with family life, to pursue meaningful hobbies, and even to dress fashionably. In another similarity to Anchalee, SWE members occasionally found their representations of women in the field met with hostility, incredulity, or trivialization. Writing in 1952, one member observed of her interactions with the local schools that “I have detected a note of flippancy and curiosity in the attitude of the supervising principals who have phoned for program speakers. It is obvious to date that they are interested in knowing whether the engineer is blonde or brunette, rather than if her degree is Chemical or Electrical.”[16]

Despite the significant gains that women have since made in engineering, it is evident that such condescension toward female engineers can still be seen today, as Anchalee’s experience reminds us. The continued association between engineering and masculinity in the eyes of many makes necessary initiatives such as the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign, which builds on earlier efforts. Indeed, current members of SWE have been eager participants in the campaign, calling attention to present-day obstacles while extending the work of previous SWE generations. Understanding the persistence of barriers to women in the field as well as continuities between present and past efforts to effect change sheds light on the broader history of women engineers.


Laura Micheletti Puaca is Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Minor Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. She is the author of Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940–1980, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2014. She is currently working on a new book project examining disability and domesticity in the post-World War II United States.


[1] Isis Anchalee, “You May Have Seen My Face on BART,” The Coffeelicious, medium.com, August 1, 2015.

[2] National Science Foundation, “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities,” 2015, Table 5-1.

[3] Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America, vol. 3, Forging a New World since 1972 (2012), 45–46.

[4] Amy Sue Bix, Girls Coming to Tech! A History of American Engineering Education for Women (2013), 11–13.

[5] Amy Sue Bix, “From ‘Engineeresses’ to ‘Girl Engineers’ to ‘Good Engineers’: A History of Women’s U.S. Engineering Education,” NWSA Journal, 16 (Spring 2004), 27–28.

[6] Bix, Girls Coming to Tech!, 30-31.

[7] Ruth Oldenziel, “Multiple-Entry Visas: Gender and Engineering in the U.S., 1870–1945,” in Crossing Boundaries, Building Bridges: Comparing the History of Women Engineers 1870s–1990s, ed. Annie Canel, Ruth Oldenziel, and Karin Zachmann (2000), 14–15 and Bix, Girls Coming to Tech!, 32–33.

[8] Bix, Girls Coming to Tech!, 40; Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America, vol. 1, Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (1982), 91; Ben Walpole, “ASCE Recognizes Stanton Blatch Barney; Pioneering Civil Engineer, Suffragist,” ASCE News, August 28, 2015.

[9] Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870–1945 (1999), 169–70.

[10] J.K. Finch to the Faculty of Engineering, Oct. 6, 1942 and attached “Memorandum on the proposal to admit women to the undergraduate engineering course at Columbia,” folder 13, box 7, Dean’s Office/Departmental Correspondence, 1942–1943, (Barnard College Archives, Barnard College, New York, New York).

[11] Rossiter, Women Scientists in America, vol. 1, 389n.15.

[12] Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America, vol. 2, Before Affirmative Action, 1940–1972 (1995), 14; V.R. Cardozier, Colleges and Universities in World War II (1993), 117; and Edna May Turner, “Education of Women for Engineering in the United States, 1885–1952” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1954), 122.

[13] Turner, “Education of Women for Engineering in the United States,”122, 188.

[14] Bix, Girls Coming to Tech!, 37–38, 121.

[15] See Laura Micheletti Puaca, Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940–1980 (2014), 65–84.

[16] Margaret A. Kearney to Beatrice A. Hicks, Dec. 10, 1952, folder 26, box 103, Society of Women Engineers National Records (Walter P. Reuther Library and Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan). For an overview of SWE, as well as documents related to its history, see Laura Puaca, “How Did the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Work to Expand Women’s Education and Employment Opportunities (1950–1977)?” forthcoming in Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, eds., Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000.