BY BARBARA CHABAI
Emily Roebling. Alba Colon. Shalini Govil-Pai. Not exactly household names in North America, and yet these women are deserving of celebrity on par with their achievements in engineering.
Giving these pioneers their due recognition and using their stories to inspire today’s young women is the purpose of a new book, Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers, published by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“The American Society of Civil Engineers hosted a task force on women engineering several years ago,” says author Sybil Hatch. “One of the recommendations was to develop a book about women engineers that could highlight the many role models in the profession and to try to attract more girls into engineering.”
In fact, the new book, which profiles women who have made contributions to every aspect of modern life, was an initiative of the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project Coalition, formed in 2004 by acting and past presidents of major engineering societies to encourage more girls to pursue careers in engineering. Today, the coaltion represents nearly 60 engineering organizations, including government agencies, corporations, professional societies and universities.
Through Changing Our World, the coalition hopes to serve as a fresh perspective on engineering for a new generation of students.
“Our primary audience is academically prepared high school girls and those who influence them — their parents, teachers, guidance counsellors and peers,” says Ms. Hatch, noting that that book is intended as a learning tool, not a comprehensive “who’s who” of women engineers.
“We have chosen stories that illustrate how engineers and engineering touches
so many aspects of our lives,” she says, explaining that the women profiled
were selected using a number of criteria.
“First and foremost, the woman had to be or has to be an engineer, with the caveat that an engineering education wasn't necessarily available to many of the early pioneers. Our other criterion was whether there was a story to tell that would be relevant and engaging to high school girls, their parents and teachers.”
Among the women profiled in the 256-page book are Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space; Rita Meyninger, who coordinated the emergency residential evacuation of toxic Love Canal in the 1970s; and Canada’s own Elsie McGill. Ms. McGill acted as an aeronautics consultant to the federal government during the Second World War.
Under her direction as Canadian Car and Foundry’s chief engineer, 1,400 Hawker Hurricane aircrafts were built in Canada. It has been said that 85 per cent of the victories during the 1940 Battle of Britain are because of the resilient Hurricane.
Ms. Hatch, who has a background in geotechnical and geo-environmental engineering, said she was honoured to be able to speak with so many women engineers at all levels within their careers.
“I was pleased to learn how ‘normal’ everyone seems, even though they are really superstars,” she says. “Women engineers also have family, outside interests and are very approachable — they’re not nerds or super-humans. Each and every engineer in the book is extremely passionate about her work and about making a difference in the world.”
It would appear that the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project has its work cut out for it, especially in the face of daunting statistics that say less than two per cent of high school graduates will earn engineering degrees, and that only 20 per cent of undergraduate engineering students are women. Still, Ms. Hatch remains optimistic.
“We have a long way to go in educating girls — and society at large — about the value that engineers and engineering plays in our daily lives.
“Yet, it can be done,” she says. “We have been trying in fits and leaps for the past 30 or more years to attract more women into engineering.”
Among the coalition’s plans are the development of a television documentary, corresponding educational resources and training, and national out-reach programs.
“I’m actually very excited about the prospects through the work of the Extraordinary Women Engineers Coalition of moving toward a critical mass of women in engineering. We will be using powerful engineering tools to create a better world that best reflects the values and priorities of all people — not just men.”
In Canada, discussions on reaching young women and motivating them towards careers in engineering will take place at the 11th CCWESTT National Conference for the Advancement of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology in Calgary, June 22-25. The theme of this year’s conference is Producing Influential Leaders.