Today, engineering is considered a male-dominated field. The extent to which this is true is clearly shown in education-related statistics. For example, the percentage of female freshmen with intentions to major in Engineering, Math, Statistics, or Computer Science was just 7.9 percent in 2014, versus 26.9 percent of male freshmen. That isn’t much of an improvement for women since 2006, when it was just 3.5 percent.
To make things worse, even women who start in STEM often don’t end up in it: 32 percent of women switch out of STEM degree programs in college, and only 30 percent of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in Engineering still work in the field 20 years later. Thirty percent of those who leave cite “organizational climate” as the reason.
Clearly, the STEM industry doesn’t exactly embrace women with open arms. But that’s why it’s extremely important to highlight the women who haven’t let this stop them. Women are among tech’s greatest minds, and have been since the advent of the technology revolution. For inspiration and for appreciation, here are 9 names you should really know.
The Hers of History
These are a handful of women who have come before. Without them, the path would’ve never been paved for the innovators of today — and tomorrow.
All the men who’ve made their living using programming languages, well, they have this lady to thank. Throughout her life (from 1906 to 1992), Dr. Grace Hopper pioneered multiple programming languages for the first computers.
She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 and then earned a master’s and doctorate at Yale University before joining the Navy. During this time, she helped build Mark I, “one of the world’s earliest computers.”
Hopper continued working on this innovative technology after the war, and as well as serving as a power in engineering, she was the oldest serving officer in the U.S. armed forces when she retired in 1986.
Emily Warren Roebling
When it comes to famous female engineers from the past, one name comes up frequently: Emily Warren Roebling. That’s because her story really merits it.
Roebling is credited with finishing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, despite lacking a formal degree in Engineering. She is often called the bridge’s “silent builder.”
Roebling took over the behemoth task after her husband became too sick to finish the job and her father passed away. She was able to finish the job because of meticulous note taking and observation.
She ultimately taught herself all aspects of civil and construction engineering. Her creation, as any New Yorker can attest, was extremely successful. And her contributions were unquestionably trail-blazing at the time.
Chien-Shiung Wu is an important person to recognize because she is so often overlooked today — and was unjustly overlooked during her life as well.
Often referred to as the “First Lady of Physics,” Wu moved to the U.S. from China to pursue her graduate studies. Wu would go on to do invaluable work for the States, joining the Manhattan Project during World War II (the army’s secret project to develop the atomic bomb).
After this important job, Wu continued research at Columbia University, and along with two male colleagues, disproved a key principle in Physics. This game changer earned the two men a Nobel Prize in 1957. Wu’s work was not recognized. For that reason, we must remember her name today. As well as all the other women whose vital contributions have been forgotten.
Engineering a Better Future
Though you may not see them working quietly behind the scenes, these female engineers are at the helm of innovation today. Without them, the world would be a completely different place.
Doudna has been making headlines for her record-breaking contributions to the development of Crispr (gene editing) technology.
Recently, she has spearheaded public discussion over the implications of the discovery she contributed to in 2012. While working at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna “helped make one of the most monumental discoveries in biology: a relatively easy way to alter any organism’s DNA, just as a computer user can edit a word in a document.”
This technique, known as Crispr-Cas9 genome editing, made Doudna a celebrity of sorts. The applications of her work could be boundless, but that’s what she’s worried about. Instead of simply repeating the economic benefits of Crispr and walking away quietly, she has been fighting to make sure the ethical line is not crossed.
Ellen Ochoa has had an absolutely outstanding career, which started when she was chosen to be NASA’s first Latina astronaut in 1990. On the job, she proved her brilliance and gumption.
She has nearly 1,000 flight hours to her credit, and has received numerous awards and accolades from NASA for her proven skills. She has “a very long list of honors and has at least four schools named after her.”
Ochoa's career certainly didn’t end in space. Today, she serves as the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She is the second woman ever to hold this title; and the first Latina woman.
Throughout her entire life, she was discouraged by claims like Engineering was “not a women’s field,” but she (fortunately) ignored them. Ochoa has subsequently paved the way for many women in STEM.
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty is one of the most powerful women in the world. She was the first woman to serve as chairman, president and CEO of tech company IBM, a position that she holds today. Rometty’s career started at General Motors, where she worked as a systems engineer.
She moved up to rank among Forbes’s “World’s 100 Most Powerful People,” and has been a part of Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” list for 10 consequtive years.
Serving as the leader of such a prestigious company — and doing so with so much success — has done wonders for future leaders.
The Trailblazers of Tomorrow
These women have already proved themselves as forces to be reckoned with. The difference? They’re just getting started.
Hu has been identified as part of Forbes’s 30 under 30 list for her entrepreneurial ventures in the field of engineering. The young entrepreneur has been particularly instrumental in the social engineering project One Concern, which demonstrates her potential future impact.
One Concern uses data science and AI to pose a solution to the terrible after-effects of the increasingly common natural disasters. “[Its] earthquake platform — now being used by the governments of Seattle and two cities in California — can tell which buildings need to be reinforced, where to evacuate, and how much damage to expect block to block.”
Aaron is the current Director of Video Algorithms at Netflix. Though there are thousands of employees at the company, Aaron stands out because of her integral role in developing Netflix’s competitive edge. Aaron was one of the first employees at the company, joining after graduating from Stanford University and completing a stint at Cisco.
At Cisco, she was an Engineering lead, where she “architected and implemented video encoding and decoding modules for improved user experience with playback and transcoding.” She is extremely well respected in her field, leading a team of academic engineers.
Cathy Edwards is the director of Engineering at one of the world’s most powerful tech companies: Google. She grew up in Australia and was encouraged to code at a very young age. This paid off, because in 2009, Edwards went on to co-found and serve as the chief technology officer for search engine Chomp.
The company was acquired by Apple for $50 million just three years later and Edwards was given the role of Head of Search for iTunes, the App Store, and Maps.
All of this occurred before her most recent gig, which came about following a similar trajectory. After leaving Apple in 2014, she created a new startup which was acquired by Google in 2016.
Clearly, Edwards is a talented engineer and entrepreneur. Even Google and Apple have noticed. Plus, we have no doubt that the best is yet to come.