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Five inspirational women in engineering

Though our editorial desk isn’t made up of engineering pros, it doesn’t diminish our interest in the sector. 

Sydney Embray
29th February 2016
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Our table boasts mostly writers, a couple of analytics gurus, and one university business student-turned-content intern whose senior Physics final (a 20-step Rube Goldberg machine) failed on step 2 due to user error, signalling the end of her STEM career.

Fortunately, that student—yours truly—was able to fall back on her writing. Though I won’t be inventing a mind-blowing machine any time soon, I am still fascinated by mechanical, chemical, and aeronautic feats accomplished by those in the engineering industry—and I’m even more thrilled to write about them.

What I don’t find thrilling, however, is the disproportionate gender gap apparent in STEM careers today: according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, only 6% of the engineering force in the UK is female.  This is a shocking number, especially as women play a much more active role in the world today than women were able to in the past.

The natural question, then, is where does this problem start?  Surely women aren’t just opting out of careers in computing, engineering, and physics—jobs for which women hold just 20% of relevant bachelor’s degrees awarded—especially when women in STEM careers experience 33% higher pay than women in other industries and a much smaller wage gap.  

Research reveals that girls begin losing interest in STEM fields as early as eight years old due to an array of systemic social, cultural, and economic barriers—including the stigma that boys are naturally better at math.  Such is not the case, as girls outperform their male counterparts at STEM A-Levels year after year: in 2012, girls received equal or higher grades on all STEM A-Levels excluding math, where there was a 1% difference and the trend has been on the steady increase since. Yet in 2011 nearly half (46%) of co-ed secondary schools sent no girls on to a Physics A-Level, and in 2014 girls made up only 21% of all Physics A-Levels taken.  Girls are being encouraged, whether innocuously or purposefully, not to pursue STEM—and it’s setting everyone back.

Take it from the United States, where 1.7 million new jobs are in STEM fields: when women pass on pursuing careers in STEM, the whole country suffers.  According to a report published by No Ceilings, ‘...the female STEM drop-off has a disproportionate effect on the job-readiness of the national workforce and the broader ability of the United States to drive innovation and compete in the world marketplace.’  Even in a country where, on the whole, women are more educated than men (women hold 57% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded), gendered employment in STEM careers is still a pressing issue.

How can this increasingly worrisome problem be remedied?  Many organizations and individuals have set their resources and talent toward encouraging young girls to stay in STEM.  This list includes Debbie Sterling of GoldieBlox, No Ceilings, and the team at EngineerGirl, among many, many others.  Across the board, these experts agree: providing girls with role models is paramount in engaging their interest and keeping them involved in STEM. 

Our editor Safeera Sarjoo recently published an article to the site outlining the importance and impact of giving female STEM pioneers the fame and recognition they deserve.  In keeping with this theme, here are just a few female STEM role models: introduce them to the girls and women in your life, and be a part of the change.

 

Ada Lovelace

As a computer scientist, Ada Lovelace was leaps and bounds ahead of her time.  In 1843, her mentor asked her to make notes on a set of plans for an “analytical engine” (a computer).  Ada’s notes more than tripled the length of the document and included the first-ever computer program.  More than a century later Ada’s ideas brought the world into the information age—her work inspired WWII code-breaker and computer scientist Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence. 

Margaret Hamilton

Computer scientist and CEO, Margaret Hamilton led the way for computer science during the space age and beyond.  Her work on highly difficult programs at MIT set her apart from the rest of her field, and as the director and supervisor of software programming for the Apollo missions she demonstrated her prowess by designing highly reliable and intelligent software that helped America achieve the moon landing.  After her NASA success, Hamilton went on to successfully establish and run two software companies, and is even credited with coining the term “software engineering”.  

Beatrice Shilling

A legendary mechanical engineer, Beatrice Shilling’s love for engines started early.  She began working on her own motorcycle at age 14, worked as an electrical engineer after secondary school, and earned her Master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Manchester.  When the Royal Aircraft Establishment expressed an interest in her talents during WWII, Beatrice answered the call—and earned fame for solving a stalling problem in aircraft engines.  Her invention kept RAF planes in the air and helped the Allies win the war. 

Dr. Sally Ride

American physicist and astronaut Dr. Sally Ride wasn’t the first woman to travel in space, but she was the youngest—and her passion for physics and science took her even further.  Ride was a crew member on two Challenger missions, becoming the face of NASA’s shuttle missions.   After the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, Ride was a part of the investigative committee for both—the only person to do so.  After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride worked as a professor of physics, conducted research, authored children’s books, and was the CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company focused on engaging middle school students in science, particularly girls.

 

Dr. Jennifer Edwards

After achieving her doctorate in 2006, Dr. Jennifer Edwards has been studying the use of precious metals in manufacturing chemicals at Cardiff University.  Historically, the creation of fine chemicals has required harsh production environments and resulted in fairly nasty by-products, but Dr. Edwards’ groundbreaking research has helped to ‘clean up’ chemistry.  Dr. Edwards was nominated and made the short list to for the 2015 Woman of the Future award for science.  

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