The Geniuses We Don’t Know

By Celia Hameury

How many men in engineering can you name? If you take a moment and think about it, you will probably come up with at least five or six. From Elon Musk to James Watt, famous male engineers are everywhere. Yet how many women in engineering can you name? Engineering has long been a male-dominated department, which makes recognizing women within the field all the more important. Here are seven women whose contributions to the engineering profession stand out.

 

 

Gwynne Shotwell (1963-)

This Illinois engineer got her master’s degree in mechanical engineering and Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University. She first worked with The Aerospace Corporation, doing research on space and thermal analysis. Wanting to work on the design of spacecrafts, she moved to the space division of Microcosm Inc. In 2002, however, she joined SpaceX. She is now president of SpaceX and Chief Operating Officer, responsible for the day-to-day activities of the company. She is the great woman standing in the shadows behind Elon Musk and assuring that everything runs smoothly.

 

Julie Payette (1963-)

Julie Payette is probably best known for being an astronaut who served first as chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency from 2000 to 2007 and then with NASA as capsule communicator. However, before that, Payette was a graduate from McGill, where she studied electrical engineering. Furthermore, she holds 27 honorary doctorate degrees, in fields ranging from law to sciences. From 2011 to 2014, she was CEO of the Montreal Science Centre. In 2017, the Canadian astronaut was made Governor General under Justin Trudeau. Her name is now a household name among most Canadians.

 

Kimberly Bryant (1967-)

Kimberly Bryant is an African American electrical engineer who got her degree from Vanderbilt University. Specializing in high-voltage electronics, she first worked for electronics companies, including DuPont before moving towards biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. However, Kimberly Bryant’s influence as an engineer stretches beyond her work in the field. Indeed, Bryant founded Black Girls Code, an organization which aims to support African American girls in computer science and engineering. Black Girls Code teaches teenage girls computer programming and aims to teach one million girls before 2040.

 

Lynn Conway (1938-)

Graduating from the University of Columbia with a degree in Engineering and Applied Science, Lynn Conway first worked at IBM doing research on Advanced Computing Systems. During this time, she invented generalized dynamic instruction handling, a method used in out-of-order processing by most modern computers. However, Conway was fired from IBM when she revealed her desire to undergo a gender transition and become a trans woman. But Conway’s career did not stop there. After her transition, she took on a new identity and began working in the US department of defense. She also became a transgender activist, lobbying the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) for transgender inclusion in the IEEE code of ethics.

 

Beatrice Hicks (1919-1979)

Beatrice Hicks graduated from Newark College of Engineering with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, one of the only two women in her class. She was the first woman engineer hired by Western Electric. After the death of her father, she took control of his company, Newark Controls Company. While working there, she designed and patented a gas density switch which would later be used in NASA space programs, such as the Apollo moon landing. The device was one of the first of its kind. It detected structural limits and assessed when those limits would be reached. Most importantly, however, Beatrice Hicks is known for founding the first-ever Society of Women in Engineering, of which she was president for two terms. The organization later awarded her its highest honor.

 

Edith Clarke (1883-1959)

Edith Clarke was an electrical engineer specialized in electrical power system analysis. She was the first woman to earn a master’s in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After her studies, she worked with General Electric, supervising computers (mathematicians charged with computation) in the department of Turbine Engineering. During this time, she invented the Clarke calculator, a graphical device used to solve equations involving voltage, current and impedance. She then wrote the influential textbook Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems. When she joined the faculty of Austin University in Texas, she became the first female professor of Electrical Engineering in the country.

 

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903)

The only woman on this list who didn’t earn a degree in engineering, Emily Warren Roebling is nonetheless often dubbed “the first woman field engineer” due to her extensive work on the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling was indeed first married to the chief civil engineer overseeing the construction of the bridge. However, her husband developed decompression sickness and was subsequently bedridden. Roebling stepped in and filled his position as chief engineer on the project, dedicating the next fourteen years of her life to overseeing its construction. She gained much knowledge on stress, strain and various other engineering concepts. Her crucial contribution to the Brooklyn Bridge was a reminder of women’s capacity for higher education, particularly engineering.

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