Women engineers in the 1920s

1 min read

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.