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Women Engineering Students: “We can’t be the only ones!”

Swimming against the tide — and documenting it, too.
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By Anne Perusek, SWE Director of Editorial and Publications

In 1919, women engineering students at the University of Colorado began an ambitious project to contact engineering schools across the United States, connect with other women studying engineering or architecture, and form a national organization. Though few in number, one can imagine these young women declaring, ”We can’t be the only ones!”

Responses from the engineering deans reflected common attitudes of the time, as these women were truly swimming against the tide. Their mostly discouraging replies were the topic of another recent blog, “SWE Founders Day: Letters from the Past,” which sheds light on that era and is a must-read.

Women Engineering Students: “we Can’t Be The Only Ones!”
Group photo of SWE’s Founding Meeting at Camp Green May 27, 1950
Women Engineering Students: “we Can’t Be The Only Ones!”
Hazel Quick

The women prevailed, however, and found others who, like themselves, were studying in these traditionally male fields. Their short-lived organization, the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects, was a forerunner to the Society of Women Engineers. Hilda Counts, who initiated the letter writing campaign with a fellow student, became a founding member of SWE; Hazel Quick, ASWEA’s treasurer, became a member of SWE’s Detroit Section in 1952.  Despite the passage of time and the generally unsupportive attitude toward women in engineering, they persisted.

In the late 1940s, women engineering students and women working in the field also sought one another. Certain that “we can’t be the only ones,” they began to organize, culminating in the May 27, 1950 founding of the Society of Women Engineers.

Founders Day
1954 Women’s Bureau Bulletin, U.S. Department of Labor, compiled with SWE’s statistics.
Founders Day
Using data from a 1961 survey of SWE members, the first Profile of a Woman Engineer, published in 1963, explored members’ ages, salaries, education, employment, and marital status.

And because it was clear that they were not the only ones, the founders tracked membership and potential members through surveys on women engineers and engineering students across the country and, eventually, overseas.

Long before anyone “outside” paid much attention to women studying engineering and working in the profession, SWE’s statistics committee was accumulating valuable data. By 1954, when the U.S. Department of Labor published its bulletin on professional engineering as part of its “Opportunities for Women,” series, SWE’s data formed much of its basis.

Gathering data became the mainstay of SWE’s statistics committee. Published on an irregular basis from 1963 to 1984, the “Profile of a Woman Engineer” series provided important information based on the committee’s work. SWE’s data-gathering continued to bear fruit by partnering with 22 other engineering societies, conducting, and in 1993 publishing, “A National Survey of Women and Men Engineers.” And in 2008, at the Society’s October 2008 congressional briefing, results from the 2007 “SWE Retention Study” were formally released.

Founders Day
Members of the statistics committee did the computations themselves for the first Profile of a Woman Engineer in 1963, the number of responses received in later years made it impractical to calculate the data by hand. Similar to this computer punch card from a 1955 member survey, the committee coded survey responses onto computer punch cards and wrote computer programs to read and calculate the data.
Founders Day
After a nine-year break, the statistics committee released a new edition, renaming it A Profile of the Woman Engineer, in 1972. The report became more involved over the years, examining members’ specializations, the nature of their work, their level of experience, and the degree to which they had supervisory responsibilities.

As the Society marks its 67th anniversary, the status of women engineers is a topic of considerable research, discussion, and debate. For the past 15 years, SWE Magazine has published an annual review of the social science literature concerning women in engineering. A compilation of these annual literature reviews comprises a bibliography, accompanied by analysis and discussion, of hundreds of journal articles, books, magazine articles, and dissertations.

While it’s been quite clear for a long time that “we aren’t the only ones,” women are still underrepresented in the profession and in university. The numbers of women receiving engineering degrees and working in the discipline have been stagnant for years. And individuals still find they are the lone woman engineer in their department or organization — evidence that SWE’s work, and the work of diversifying the profession, is vitally important.

Nearly 100 years ago, women engineering students began to seek others of like mind and organize for change. Three decades later, SWE took up the mantle. Conducting research, analyzing that research, and using the results to move forward were essential to these undertakings. It’s a point of great pride that SWE has led this process since its earliest days, continuing to the present by conducting new research, launching a new research site, and publishing the SWE Magazine special issue, SWE Research 2017: Thinking Differently About Design and Research. Please see