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 ON THE SHELF

REVIEWED BY ROBIN TATU

ON THE SHELFSACHET AND SLIDE RULES

“You’ve come a long way!” is an understatement.


WOMEN IN ENGINEERING:
Professional Life and Pioneers and Trailblazers
Two volumes. Ed., Margaret E. Layne
ASCE Press


The story of the Brooklyn Bridge is familiar to many, as are the challenges faced by chief engineer Washington Roebling over the 13 years it took to build the longest suspension span of its time. Fewer understand the role assumed by his wife, Emily, when, soon after construction began in 1870, Roebling was crippled by “the bends” – a then mysterious decompression sickness suffered by numerous bridge workers transported to the river’s bottom in pneumatic caissons.

As her spouse lay bedridden and partially paralyzed, Emily Roebling gradually took on daily management of the project, demonstrating such specific technical knowledge in meetings with suppliers, city officials, and politicians that some credited her as the real architect of the bridge. Even today her full contribution to the project is debated. But in 1894, De Volson Wood, first president of the fledgling Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education – today known as ASEE – declared that he would welcome into his society the woman who had “studied works on engineering, and the plans and the specifications of the project, and [become] the head, hands, and feet of him who was the official engineer of the East River bridge.”

Emily Roebling’s story – and that of many other female engineers – is explored in the two-volume set of Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers and Professional Life. Presented by editor Margaret Layne as a disparate collection of materials gathered over the years, the work seeks to rehabilitate a neglected history and to question cultural aspects of engineering that have affected women’s experiences, often negatively.

As one might expect from a compilation that draws from popular magazines, book chapters, formal reports, and conference addresses, the approach and quality of these separate chapters vary. But for the most part, Layne, a former president of the Society of Women Engineers, has chosen well, producing a rich tapestry of material.

Readers may appreciate the no-nonsense 1926 career advice by Elsie Eaves that “civil engineering is one of the few remaining fields where women have still to pioneer and to demonstrate what they can do”; a 1954 U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau pamphlet detailing the requirements of engineering and articles from almost every decade that question why more women do not enter the field. In 1954, engineer Emma Barth assured an audience that interested “girls” would not have to choose between their careers and marriage. The following decade, Sigrid Marczoch posited that women felt discouraged because securing employment was so difficult and practitioners were inevitably treated as “oddballs.” In 1981, sociologist Sally Hacker observed the enduring culture of sexism in academia: engineering magazine advertisements that used scantily clad women to promote industrial equipment, not to mention the monthly E-Girl centerfold in the University of Iowa’s The Iowa Engineer. Writing in 2009, Layne notes that “selling girls on engineering is not enough”; academics, employers, and engineers still need to question their gender biases.

Many of the studies contained within this work demonstrate clear evidence of “hegemonic masculinity” that has persisted in American society and contributed to the gender imbalance in engineering. Yet these narratives also attest to promising inroads. Contrary to Wood’s welcoming words to Emily Roebling, early 20th-century U.S. engineering societies actively discouraged women from joining. Those who did join were restricted to associate or junior membership status. America’s first female civil engineer graduate, Nora Stanton Blatch, challenged this limitation and, in 1916, sued the American Society of Civil Engineers for full membership – but lost. Yet in 1927, Elsie Eaves achieved that distinction. And 75 years later, Pat Galloway would be inducted as the first female president of ASCE. Now, ASCE comes full circle in producing this provocative study.

Women in Engineering offers an informative overview of women’s experiences in U.S. engineering, helping to correct a record that has often diminished their struggles, their participation, and their achievements.



Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.

 

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