Today’s Google Doodle pays tribute to Mary G. Ross, P.E., F.SWE, the first American Indian woman engineer, who was born on August 9, 1908. Ross is noted for her contributions to the aerospace industry and as a role model and mentor for American Indians. She was an active member and Fellow of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and her impact on women in engineering resulted in the Mary G. Ross Scholarship, administered by the Santa Clara Valley Section.
Ross’s life story is featured in articles today from Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Refinery29, Mashable, and many other media outlets. She was the subject of a podcast by the University of Houston. It is a great way to highlight the Society of Women Engineers and the work that women engineers have done in the past and continue to do today.
In a career that covered nearly five decades, Ross amassed a number of accomplishments and firsts, from being the first woman engineer employed by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company to working on such major programs as the Agena rocket and the Poseidon and Trident missiles. To this day, however, much of her work remains classified, keeping the full extent of her contributions hidden. The National Science Foundation reports that only 0.1 percent of those working in science and engineering are female Americans Indians, and according to the U.S. Census, only 11 percent of employed aerospace engineers are women. Ross was truly blazing a trail in her efforts and accomplishments.
Mary G. Ross Scholarship
In 1992, the Mary G. Ross Scholarship was established by the SWE Santa Clara Section to support future female engineers and technologists.
When asked how this scholarship impacted her ability to study engineering, Aditi Jain explained that the scholarship was … “More than money, it gave me confidence. I don’t think I considered myself an engineer until I received the scholarship.” Jain earned a degree in Math and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and now works at Google where she applies computer vision to Google Maps Streetview Imagery.
Another scholarship recipient, Ella Tyler says, “Being recognized by SWE was an honor, and it inspires me to learn that SWE has faith in my ability to succeed as an engineer.” Ella is studying Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California Berkeley.
“The Mary G. Ross Scholarship has helped me tremendously, not only financially contributing to my education, but also affirming that someone believes that I have the skills to be successful in the engineering field,” says Stacey Wong, a Senior majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California – Davis.
To donate to the Mary G. Ross Scholarship fund, click here and select the Mary G. Ross Scholarship Fund – 100% of donations will be directed towards this scholarship. Donations can also be made to SWE’s general scholarship fund through the same link.
In 2018, SWE distributed more than 200 scholarships valued at more than $750,000. For more information on scholarship opportunities available, visit swe.org/scholarships.
Member of the Cherokee Nation
Ross was the great-great granddaughter of Chief John Ross, who led the Cherokees on their arduous Trail of Tears, a forced march from the Southeastern United States to relocation in Oklahoma. Mary Ross was born in 1908, grew up with the Cherokee value of learning, and subsequently pursued paths that were nontraditional for women. She graduated from Northeastern State College with a degree in math and taught high school math and science before earning a master’s in math from Colorado State College of Education.
Gender barriers in a male-dominated classroom did not discourage Ross. A Cherokee Nation news release, May 13, 2008, states that in an interview Ross once said that she “…didn’t mind being the only girl in math class. Math, chemistry and physics were more fun to study than any other subject.”
Ross then went on to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a statistical clerk before joining Lockheed Aircraft in 1942. In an interview published in the Oct. 30, 1994 San Jose Mercury News, Ross said, “There wasn’t much use for my technical training at the school, but the war was on, and my friends told me what Lockheed was doing with people with my technical education.”
Her Career at Lockheed
She was hired in 1942 as a mathematician, but a manager recognized her talent and encouraged her to become an engineer. Subsequently, Lockheed sent Ross to UCLA to earn a classification in aeronautical engineering.
During her years at Lockheed, Ross worked on the forefront of space technology as part of planning teams for missions to Mars, Venus, and the outer planets of the solar system. The Agena recorded many space flight firsts and, according to Lockheed literature, was an essential step in the Apollo program to land on the moon, a major endeavor and a critical leap for America’s space program. During Ross’ time on Skunk Works, at the time a top-secret think-tank, she was the only women aside from the secretary.
In the Mercury interview, Ross said, “With such a small group, you had to do everything. Aerodynamics. Structures…I was on the ground floor at Lockheed Missiles and Space, and I couldn’t think of any more ideal situation.”
In 1958, Ross stumped panelists on the television game show “What’s my Line?” as they tried to figure out what she did for a living from a series of clues. With such little female representation in engineering, then and now, gender bias permeates heavily in the perception of what an engineer is.
In 1964, Ross was nominated for the SWE Achievement Award. A note from SWE’s archives dated Jan. 27, 1964 from Beatrice Williams to Hannah Moody reads, “Mary Ross was reluctant about having her name offered as a candidate for the SWE Annual Award…One reason is that she is a very modest person; another is the fact that most of her work has been Confidential.”
A copy of Ross’ reply shows that Williams was a good judge of character. Ross says, “All my interplanetary work has been done as a group effort, so I just can’t claim that I have any contribution as an individual. Thanks anyway, and best regards, Mary.” Ross’ application was ultimately eliminated in large part because her publications were classified company reports.
Ross’ confidential SWE membership application is dated Jan. 17, 1969, and was filled out by P.B. Weiser, Manager, Systems Evaluation, Lockheed Missiles & Space Company. On the application, Weiser pays tribute to Ross’ various accomplishments in addition to saying, “I would unhesitatingly place her in the top 10% of engineers of my acquaintance and professional knowledge.”
Following retirement, Ross continued to encourage women and American Indian youth to pursue careers in math and engineering, working with organizations such as SWE. She also worked closely with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) to expand their educational programs. She was named an honorary life member of AISES, and CERT named its highest award after her. She was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame in 1992.
Ross died in April of 2008, a few months before her 100th birthday.
The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), founded in 1950, is the world’s largest advocate and catalyst for change for women in engineering and technology. The not-for-profit educational and service organization is the driving force that establishes engineering as a highly desirable career aspiration for women. To ensure SWE members reach their full potential as engineers and leaders, the Society offers unique opportunities to network, provides professional development, shapes public policy and provides recognition for the life-changing contributions and achievements of women engineers. As a champion of diversity, SWE empowers women to succeed and advance in their personal and professional lives. For more information about the Societyplease visit www.swe.org or call 312.596.5223.