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Women have always had to fight for their place in engineering.

Take the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, most of the all-woman team fled Afghanistan, fearing (correctly) that the Islamic regime would bar women from attending school or enjoying other basic human rights. The “robot girls” have since set up shop in Qatar, where they continue to work on robotic creations and inspire young girls around the world to pursue their dreams.

Today, we take a look back to pioneering women in engineering who had little choice but to break the mold.

1.     Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Ada Lovelace was never going to have a normal life. Her father was Lord Byron, a renowned romantic poet and “gloomy egoist.” Her mother, Anabella Byron, tried in vain to suppress her daughter’s imagination, which she thought to be “dangerous and potentially destructive and coming from the Byrons.”

“Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of science.”

Ada Lovelace

On June 5, 1833, a 17-year-old Lovelace was attending a London party when she met Charles Babbage, who spoke of a tower of numbered wheels called a “Difference Machine,” a primitive computer that prepared numerical tables automatically and, at the time, surpassed all calculating devices. Lovelace was hooked.

Lovelace served as the key interpreter for Babbage’s next project, the “Analytical Engine.” When mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea wrote a paper on the machine, she translated it from French. Her translation and notes, which were twice as long as the paper, were published in 1843. The engine, she explained, weaved algebraic patterns, not unlike a loom weaving images from a series of punctured cards.

Ada Lovelace was among the first to recognize the potential of the machine and will go down in history as the first computer programmer.

2.     Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972)

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, along with her husband Frank Gilbreth, studied the principles of scientific management: a management theory centered around finding the “one right way” to accomplish a task. As the parents of 12 children, it’s not hard to see why they had a passion for structure and efficiency. (Fun fact: Two of their children authored “Cheaper by the Dozen” based on their quirky upbringing.)

After her husband’s sudden passing in 1924, Gilbreth worked as a consultant to corporations applying psychology to solve problems, leading to two of her most well-known inventions: refrigerator door shelves, including the butter tray, and the foot-pedal trash can. For her pioneering work, she earned the nickname “genius in the art of living.”

3.     Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

Katherine Johnson grew up in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, where Black students in the segregated education system could go no further than the sixth grade. Johnson’s father, Joshua Coleman, moved his family 125 miles to the town of Institute, West Virginia, in the hope of giving his daughters a chance at a full education.

Little did her father know that Johnson would one day be pitted against the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

Johnson was among a group of Black women known as “human computers” at NASA. Her work guided the 1961 mission on which Alan B. Shepherd became the first American in space. A year later, her calculations helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

“If she says the numbers are good, I am ready to go.”

John Glenn

Johnson calculated space flight trajectories by hand, and she was good. Really good. Notably, in 1969, she calculated trajectories that sent the Apollo 11 to the moon. The story goes that John Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl [Johnson],” trusting her over the room-sized IBM 7090 computers that programmed the orbital trajectory. Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, but only after Johnson gave the okay.

Shoutout: Women in Engineering Program

The University of Texas at Austin’s Women in Engineering Program (WEP) has a simple, inspiring goal: Get female engineering enrollment to match the percentage of women in Texas (about 50%). Every year, WEP makes strides toward achieving that goal by hosting welcome events, mentoring incoming female engineering students and providing academic and career-related resources. Learn more about their work here!

4.     Thelma Estrin (1924-2014)

As an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin, Thelma Estrin wasn’t taken seriously by her professors. Not one to be discouraged, she completed her doctorate in electrical engineering. Still, others thought she only had a fleeting interest in the field.

Her naysayers were wrong.

A pioneer in biomedical engineering, Estrin was one of the first to use computer technology to solve problems in healthcare and medical research. Notably, she designed the first system for analog-digital conversion of electrical signals in the body.

Estrin received an honorary Doctor of Science from her alma mater in 1989. An accompanying citation stated:

Refusing to be daunted by prejudice, she demonstrated through the undeniable quality of her work that talent is not tied to gender. She has been a model for other women who have entered and enriched the field of engineering, including two of her daughters.

5.     Mildred S. Dresselhaus (1930-2017)

Mildred Dresselhaus planned on becoming an elementary school teacher, but things don’t always go according to plan. As an undergraduate, she was inspired by medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow to continue her education.

“I like to be challenged. I welcome the hard questions and having to come up with good explanations on the spot. That’s an experience I really enjoy.”

Mildred S. Dresselhaus

After earning her Ph.D., Dresselhaus became a full professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1960. Material science was a fledgling field, and Dresselhaus felt she could make an impact. She was right. At a time when engineering was challenging and often hostile to women, Dresselhaus was raising four children and conducting groundbreaking research.

Her work on material design principles of carbon-based structures earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon.” Her work was crucial for the development of the lithium-ion batteries found in our most precious electronic devices.

Ever Forward, Never Back

Florence Pouya, former captain of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, said her and her teammates are always thinking of “the other girls in Afghanistan, who cannot even go to school.” Across the world, there are women whose brilliance will never pierce the veil of oppression.

We have a long way to go before engineering welcomes everyone, but at least here in the U.S., most women have the opportunity to pursue their passion for science and technology.

Break the Mold at UT Austin

If you want to follow in the footsteps of these remarkable trailblazers and pave the way for future generations of women in engineering, consider taking your education to the next level.

The University of Texas at Austin offers 100% online mechanical engineering programs. We offer an opportunity to become a trailblazer, a change-maker and a leader in the engineering landscape. Our programs are:

Your journey starts here. Apply to one of our 100% online mechanical engineering programs to join us in shaping the future of technology and engineering.


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