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Women engineers in the 1920s

January 1920. And the pages of The Engineer were ablaze with an ill-tempered debate on female engineers which illustrates dramatically how much industry - and The Engineer itself - has changed over the last century.

You can read the full exchange here but It all begins with a short article in the January 9th issue of The Engineer entitled ‘The Woman Engineer’

‘If [women] are better than men,’ pronounces the columnist (who we can probably assume is male), ‘they will get work, and if they are not they won’t, and that…is all there is to it.’

‘Nature has not fitted women for engineering,’ he continues, warming to his theme. ‘And though here and there one may break away from the normal, just as we may find now and then a great woman novelist or a tolerable women artist, so a few times in a century women may reach eminence in engineering.’

‘If women desire to remain in the craft of engineering,’ he concludes, ‘they must be content to call themselves women-mechanics.’

The following issue - published on January 16th - features an outraged  response from Miss V Key Jones, General Secretary of the Women’s Industrial League.

‘What women would like to know’, asks Jones ‘is why it should be necessary for them to prove themselves to be better than men?’

She then refers to the large numbers of women pressed into service as engineers during the first world war who, she says, ‘With short and hurried training ….showed that they possessed ability equal to and in some cases superior to men’s.’

Only when women have been engineers as long as men have would it be equitable to place them on absolute equality with men

The Engineer’s final word on the matter is patronising and dismissive. ‘Miss Key Jones desires to know why they must be better. Surely it is obvious that one does not change from something that is good unless it is to find something better.’

‘Only when women have been engineers as long as men have,’ concludes the article, ‘would it be equitable to place them on absolute equality with men.’

Thankfully, though similar attitudes may still persist in some of the less enlightened corners of British industry, much has been done, and is being done, to improve industry’s gender diversity, and the world is today a far-friendlier place for the female engineer.


Readers' comments (13)

  • These feminist debates are to all practical extents a waste of time in the UK, where if a woman wants to do something, there is little to stop her, even when she wants to be PM. Do we care if a person is male female or neuter, if they can do the job? Is there really a conspiracy to stop dedicated and proficient women reaching the top in any field? Or is the real force behind discrimination nature itself?

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  • I am reminded of 1960 (40 years after the exchange you describe) when amongst our 65 First year Students of Applied Science at St Andrews was a single girl. Sally wanted to study Civil Engineering but was told by the Dean: 'that is not a job for a lady'! She had to do electrical. happily such attitudes are long gone. Well aren't they?
    Mike b

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  • I think the article could have been written yesterday. The notion that women have to prove themselves, and prove to be better still persists.

    The anecdote from 1960 - pshaw! We still hear similar anecdotes in the 2010s - teachers and careers advisers still insist in gender-stereotyping, no matter how many lovely promotional materials showing young women in engineering environments. There are very recent surveys of women eng graduates not finding jobs at the same rates as the boys - even if they have similar ambitions and better degrees. See results of SET to Lead:
    and note the fleeting reference to "instances of poor behaviour towards females by other candidates were cited at assessment centres " so it's not just dinosaurs who display such attitudes.

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  • We hope you don't mean this could have been written yesterday in The Engineer! We like to think we have a somewhat more enlightened attitude to this subject than our 1920s predecessors.

  • Although I have probably been unfortunate in not meeting them, and although I have been an electrical engineer for 30 years I have only ever met one female electrical engineer. Many Civil & Chemical engineers and a few mechanical but only 1 electrical

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  • Not to ignore the main thrust of this conversation, but it's fascinating to read of the angst felt even 90+ years ago about the (mis?)use of the word "engineer": even we men have been uable to resolve that one to everyone's satisfaction in the intervening time.

    It's remarkable to me that only a small fraction of applicants for engineering positions with my employers are from women. I'd estimate that the proportion has not changed in the 25 years since I started at university.

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  • I think the main problem is in schools, be it peer pressure, teachers' attitudes or just not being aware of what an engineering career is or what GCSEs/A levels are needed.
    I was saddened to hear that female engineering graduates are not finding jobs at the same rate as men - I thought that once we'd persuaded girls to do engineering at university, the struggle was (mostly) over ...
    (From a mechanical engineer!)

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  • The discrimination is social, not natural, and it is still persistent. Nobody should be included in a certain profession by association, e.g. engineers are mostly men so men should be engineers. I think the men, the Engineer of the 1920's and their sad followers of today, with a retrograde attitude towards women engineers are just afraid of real competition.

    Sarah is right about the moment the detour starts for women: in early education at home and in school. In the US there is a major push to change that through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for women.

    (From another mechanical engineer)

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  • Ref Sarah Jones
    I won’t get tied up in the, who’s an engineer argument let’s just say I’m a skilled man!
    I now work in the very establishment that Sarah Jones is talking about namely education year 7 to 11’s GCSE’s. I can say categorically no teachers in this or any other school that I know of, have tried to dissuade female students from perusing engineering, quite the opposite in fact. The truth is a lot of, not all but the majority of students seem to think anything to do with Engineering is an easy touch this includes the females who take it on. They find it hard to focus, plan and follow simple instructions. This is no fault of the subject matter or the teaching staff; it’s the world we now live in. Students are preoccupied with their mobile phones, digital music and socialising. They can’t even arrive at school with writing equipment let alone the frame of mind to learn. Society needs to wake up we are breeding a generation that expects the world handed to them on a plate. So please let’s not find excuses it’s the teaching staff it’s the students apathy. Worse we have this ethos that we can’t let students fail. Well wake up they can and it comes as a bitter blow when they get their results.

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  • I wholeheartedly agree with Ray Edwards comments. Young people need to undergo a major reset in their thinking whether male or female. I've met a few female engineers in my time in the mining industry and some are good and some are not just like their male counterparts.

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  • Another "hear Hear" for Ray Edwards' comment. Also, given the massive spend on Education, the educators cannot absolve themselves of involvement in the catstrophic failure of our education system, which provides A levels that are no better than O levels, degrees which are little if any better than A levels used to be, and MEng degrees which do not bear comparison with a BSc.

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