Engineering education in the United States was long regarded as masculine territory. For decades, women who studied or worked in engineering were popularly perceived as oddities, outcasts, unfeminine (or inappropriately feminine in a male world). In Girls Coming to Tech!, Amy Bix tells the story of how women gained entrance to the traditionally male field of engineering in American higher education.
As Bix explains, a few women breached the gender-reinforced boundaries of engineering education before World War II. During World War II, government, employers, and colleges actively recruited women to train as engineering aides, channeling them directly into defense work. These wartime training programs set the stage for more engineering schools to open their doors to women. Bix offers three detailed case studies of postwar engineering coeducation. Georgia Tech admitted women in 1952 to avoid a court case, over objections by traditionalists. In 1968, Caltech male students argued that nerds needed a civilizing female presence. At MIT, which had admitted women since the 1870s but treated them as a minor afterthought, feminist-era activists pushed the school to welcome more women and take their talent seriously.
In the 1950s, women made up less than one percent of students in American engineering programs; in 2010 and 2011, women earned 18.4% of bachelor’s degrees, 22.6% of master’s degrees, and 21.8% of doctorates in engineering. Bix’s account shows why these gains were hard won.
About the Author
Amy Sue Bix is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Iowa State University, where she is also the Director of the Center for Historical Studies of Technology and Science.
“In Girls Coming to Tech! Professor Amy Bix develops the exciting story that fills the gap in the burgeoning literature focused on women in science of the overlooked and understudied history of women in engineering. Through in-depth case studies of Georgia Tech, Caltech, and MIT, she documents how both the women seeking degrees in engineering and each institution struggled with women’s acceptance into the profession in unique ways that depended upon the particular region of the country, public or private status, decade in which the struggle reached its pinnacle, and the institution’s leadership. This volume not only provides a good read, but also the background that will be key to solving the current problem of why the percentage of women majoring in engineering remains below 20 percent, and has even decreased slightly in the last few years.”
—Sue V. Rosser, Provost, San Francisco State University, and author of Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science
“One of the greatest innovations in recent American engineering is nothing technical: it is the new awareness that women can and should participate in the enterprise. The book shows the power of cultural forces that have for so long kept women away from engineering--and the power of institutional and individual courage in challenging these forces. This long-needed study is a triumph in substance and tone.”
—Rosalind Williams, Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, MIT
“Bix has amply documented the attitudes and circumstances surrounding the coming of coeducation to American engineering, chiefly in the years after the Curtiss-Wright cadettes of World War II. In so doing she has broken new ground in the field of gender and technology. In particular she shows that while most trustees, deans, faculty members and their advisors came grudgingly to approve of the move to admit (a few) women students, the male students, individually and through their various fraternities and publications, were largely and vehemently opposed. Their stunted psychosocial responses, including ostracism, exclusion, ridicule, misogyny, voyeurism, pornography, stalking, and more, were out of all proportion to the actual threat. Engineering evidently needed women, and fortunately an intrepid few stayed to fight.”
—Margaret Rossiter, Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History of Science, Cornell University; author of Women Scientists in America trilogy; and MacArthur Prize Fellow (1989-1994)