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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)

  • I am not sure that student attitudes (Ray Edwards + Anon, 30 Jan) nor "the catastrophic failure of education" (Anon 6 Feb) in the UK are the issue in this article and the comments that have followed: because these were the real issue, then there would be equal problems in recruiting and retaining male engineers. And there aren't, at least not to the same degree. The (UK) pipeline of women in the physical sciences and engineering are much leakier than the pipeline of men. Much, much leakier...

    Nor can it be a question of "nature" (Robin C, 30 Jan) that there are so few women engineers in the UK, because if that were the case, then we would not be lagging behind every other european country in terms of % of engineers who are women (there's a report published by the UKRC, showing UK women engineers at 8% of all engineers - at the very bottom of the league table, behind Greece, Spain, etc etc, and Latvia).

    Nor would anyone seriously claim that teachers are deliberate in discrimination - but there are subtle and not so subtle ways to influence negatively. So I have witnessed a school setting up mock interviews for their learners with local employers (yay! fantastic!), but all boys were interviewed by building and IT firms, and the girls got hospitality and nursing (oh dear... guess the admin person arranging the pairing was not prepared by the head to think the issues through ... ) Some the negative influence can be accidental too: "you should go into engineering - there are so few women, it would be great if you took all those boys on! remember you will need to work really hard at maths!"

    We have a skills issue and we have too few women entering and even fewer staying. It might not be quite as bad as in the 20s, but it has not changed much for the past 20 years. So whatever it is, we in the UK are (still) doing it and it is wrong.

    There are fabulous organisations such as the Women's Engineering Society ( that can support individuals and organisations to change the status quo. Join them.

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  • I think if women read "The Engineer" regularly and particularly the infantile and largely unfounded winges about pay and status, one might draw two conclusions:-

    1/ it's the fault of the Engineers in the industry that they're put off.

    and/ or 2/ They're smarter than men and look elsewhere for careers.

    I love Engineering, am happy to see an increasing number of female engineers, and look forward to seeing more.

    Men and women do differ; the distributions of female and male engineers across the many different areas may differ, but I think the situation has improved during my thirty plus years in Engineering. On average, I would say that the intellectual abilities of the female engineers I've encountered exceed those of male engineers, while the application to hardware seems slightly weaker. I know that's sounds like some dinosaur's bigotry, but it's only intended to reflect what I see; it may also reflect how female Engineers are treated, of course.

    What is important is that we do everything we can to make sure everyone with the skills can enjoy this great career.

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  • The Women's Engineering Society (WES) was set up in 1919 by precisely this group of women. We are still going strong today and finding that although things have dramatically improved, we are still a long way from claiming to offer equal opportunities for girls to go into careers in engineering - despite there appearing to be equal choice these days.

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