Think about women in the workplace. What comes to mind?
Is it what The New York Times has called the “fast-moving national reckoning over sexual harassment”? The downfall of TV’s Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose? The icky details women have shared about Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein? Last week’s announcement that Al Franken would resign from the U.S. Senate? Those countless #MeToo stories on Facebook? Or Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year, “The Silence Breakers”?
It’s all one messy, shameful and all-too-common story — of power, as much as gender — and we surely haven’t heard the last of it. I say, let the truth come out, and may all the perpetrators bear the legal and rightful consequences.
As the profoundly damaging effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault come to light, let’s not forget other long battles women have fought to forge careers.
And let’s thank the Boeing Co. for sharing what women faced, nearly a century ago, as they sought education in engineering fields. A riveting video on the company’s website, “Women Make Us Better,” tells that story.
It begins with these typewritten statements: “In 1919, two women wrote letters to U.S. colleges asking if any female engineering students had ever been enrolled. These are the answers. Read by Boeing engineers.”
Those engineers, 15 of them, are all women. They reflect different generations, and different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Although in different voices, they convey a singular message. They project competence and commitment to their chosen field.
In the video, they can’t hide their incredulity at the tone and content of the rejection letters. One woman whispers “Whoa.” Another simply lets out a long sigh.
Here are some of the ways universities answered queries from women in 1919, the year Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
“Dear Madam, In reply to your recent communication, 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,” wrote a University of North Carolina professor.
“We do not permit women to register in the Engineering School under present regulations,” a dean of the Carnegie Institute of Technology replied. Reading that letter, one engineer in the video shakes her head and mutters, “Are you serious?”
From the dean of engineering at the University of Florida came this tiny crack in the door: “While we cannot legally register women in the college, there is nothing to prevent our admitting them as visitors to the classes, which permits them to get all the benefit of instruction although without definite status as students.”
One letter’s salutation brought wry reactions. “Dear Lady?” said one engineer before she added “for Pete’s sake.”
The 1919 requests came from two University of Colorado students, Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts.
Their letters and the responses, according to an article published in May in The Atlantic magazine, are included in the Society of Women Engineers archives at Wayne State University in Detroit.
The Boeing video ends with another typewritten statement: “Today, only 13 percent of engineering jobs in the U.S. are held by women. Let’s change that.” It adds that Boeing is dedicated to increasing that number.
Clearly, we aren’t beyond gender inequality, particularly in the fields of engineering and technology. An October article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Hidden Battle of the Sexes at Work,” outlined disparities between men and women, which grow increasingly wider at the highest levels of career ladders.
How refreshing it is, though, to hear the Boeing engineers’ strong voices. Those women remind us how far we have come — even with dispiriting daily news of how far we still must go.