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National Women’s History Month: Women, Engineering, and Emily Warren Roebling


Those women that do choose the engineering profession … find that it’s tough being a woman engineer. Fact is, the U.S. engineering workforce is predominantly composed of white males. And ironically, though women make up more than half of the U.S. population, when it comes to the engineering workforce, they comprise only about 8%, according to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Believe it or not, this percentage shows an improvement over the mid-1980s, when the proportion of females in the engineering workforce was less than 6%. [source, 2000]

Sherry L. Koucky, the co-author of the article from which the above quote comes wrote, in an accompanying editorial:

Amy Higgins and I wrote the article, and while researching we discovered some inequities ranging from how girls are educated to how women are treated in the workplace. When I expressed opinions about this to some of the men in the office, they accused me of being full of venom on this issue. But I’m not angry. Surprised and enlightened, yes. I could rant and rave about how women will never bust into the Old Boy’s Club, but that’s beating a dead horse and will not solve the issues Amy and I unearthed.

For those of us who work in in male-dominated fields (and according to domination measured by equal wages that’s virtually all women), Ms. Koucky’s experience – offering information to men about women’s circumstances in a shared field meets with accusations that woman is “full of venom” or shrill or (presumably wrongly) angry will sound familiar. If you read Koucky’s and Higgins article you will see how strange it is that she was attacked by male colleagues, especially scientists who are supposedly interested in empirical data, since the article considers a range of hypotheses for why women not only are so underrepresented in engineering, but are underrepresented in the more highly remunerative areas of engineering.

In recent years, according to an SWE survey of 2,000 male and female engineers, women engineers typically have started their first engineering jobs at salaries equal to or greater than those of their male counterparts. After about eight years in the workforce, however, those women still pursuing an engineering career earn less than men. This disparity widens the longer these women stay in the workforce. Some experts believe the salary difference is due to women not advancing into management at the same rate as men. Others believe that family responsibilities have caused women to remove themselves from the workforce for a period of time and that they never make up the difference. The SWE survey produced other interesting findings:
* Women engineers are more likely than men to work in a manufacturing sector, while men work in consulting.
* Women engineers tend to work for large engineering employers while men work in smaller firms.
* Men are more likely (40% versus 14%) than women to pursue and obtain registration as professional engineers.
* 51% of male engineers feel that they participate in management decisions while only 32% of female engineers feel this way.

Most experts agree that survey results such as these reflect a glass ceiling a perceived barrier preventing women or minorities from moving into top management positions that they can see, but never reach. In fact, research from the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, as well as testimonials, support that today’s American labor force is gender and race segregated, and that white men fill most top management positions in corporations.


(Woman engineers in the 19th century)

Elizabeth Bragg received the first engineering degree awarded to a U.S. woman when she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a civil engineering degree in 1876. I have not found much information about Ms. Bragg’s career. A more famous woman engineer from the period is Emily Warren Roebling. Brooklyn Museum: Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling Roebling’s name is inscribed on the Brooklyn Bridge as one of its builders. After both her father and husband suffered incapacitating injuries during their work on the bridge, Emily Warren Roebling stepped in to see the job through.

The Brooklyn Bridge might not have been built had it not been for Emily Warren Roebling. Most history books cite her father-in-law John Roebling and her husband Washington Roebling as the bridge’s builders. Early into construction in 1872, however, collapsing bridge timbers crushed John Roebling’s legs, leaving him incapacitated. Soon after, an illness paralyzed Washington Roebling. With both men out of commission, Emily Warren Roebling took over. Under her husband’s guidance, Emily had studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years supervising the bridge’s construction.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to great fanfare in May 1883. The names of John Roebling, Washington Roebling, and Emily Warren Roebling are inscribed on the structure as its builders.


I certainly do not mean to be venomous but if Emily Warren Roebling’s name is inscribed in on the bridge itself, how come “most history books” do not list her as one of its builders?