In 1919, University of Colorado students Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts set out to start a society for women engineers. They sent letters to engineering and architecture departments around the country, requesting they connect them with women in their programs. The Society of Women Engineers’ archivist Troy Eller English recently dug up the responses they received, which show just how much prejudice and exclusion female engineers faced back then—and still face.
“We do not permit women to register in the Engineering School under present regulations,” Carnegie Institute of Technology dean William Mott wrote.
“We have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department,” University of North Carolina professor Thorndike Saville echoed.
“I suspect the number of women who have undertaken general engineering courses is so few that you will hardly be able to form an organization,” wrote State University of Iowa dean William Raymond. He was right: Due to limitations on female students’ enrollment, Melton and Counts were unsuccessful in finding enough formally trained women engineers for their group.
One engineering dean—the University of Arkansas’s W.N. Gladson—at least wished the women success, adding an encouraging message: “I am aware that in the Northern and Eastern Colleges, often girls register for engineering work and make very excellent students.” Georgia Tech’s J.B. Coon said that since women could also soon gain the right to vote, there’s “no knowing what may happen.” Their prediction for more gender diversity among engineers would come to fruition, but not for a while.
It was partially due to a shortage of men during World War II that engineering educations became available to women. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute opened its doors to women in 1942 as part of a program to replace men who were going off to war. Georgia Tech followed suit 10 years later and opened all their courses to female students in 1968. The Society of Women Engineers was officially founded in 1950.
Though women can now enroll in engineering schools, they still do so at lower rates than men. About one in five engineering students is female, and women make up only 14.2 percent of working engineers. Despite getting better grades than their male peers, only about three in five women with engineer degrees stick with the profession. According to a recent MIT study, they often cite male-dominated work cultures as a reason for leaving.
When you look at the letters Melton and Counts received, another reason gender inequality in STEM persists becomes clear. It wasn’t so long ago that these fields were quite literally an old boys’ club, and remnants of this history still linger today.