One hundred and forty years ago, on February 16, 1880, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was founded by leading U.S. industrialists, educators, technical journalists, designers, shipbuilders, military engineers, and inventors. All men.
It wasn’t until 1918, when Kate Gleason was unanimously elected to ASME as its first woman member. In 1998, the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology became the first engineering school in the country to be named for a woman. Her impact on engineering, especially for women, continues to be recognized.
Other notable women engineers including Nancy D. Fitzroy (ASME’s first woman president), Yvonne C. Brill, Edith Clarke, Sally Ride, Mary Winston Jackson, Dorothy Lee, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and several others were trailblazers who entered the profession of engineering at a time when opportunities for women were limited.
Further Reading: In the Shadow of Apollo 11: 11 Women Engineers
Today, women make up about 47 percent of the overall workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, but are still underrepresented in science and engineering occupations. Only 14 percent of engineers are women.
While the number of women engineers in the workforce has been consistently growing over the last few decades, obstacles still remain for women working in STEM fields today. Women drop off at every stage throughout the STEM journey, whether in elementary school, high school, university, or in the workplace.
Still, there is a gradual transformation taking place. There has been an increasing effort across the U.S. to boost the number of female students to pursue STEM careers.
The Girl Scouts, for example, has reorganized its educational model and created four pillars of content to include STEM. Girls Who Code runs programs to fix gender imbalance by teaching girls computer programming, while Technovation empowers girls through engineering and technology to become innovators and leaders.
Learn More about Kate Gleason
“While the gender gap is not a simple problem to solve, I think we can start by engaging girls in STEM from a very young age,” said Kathy de Paolo, a technologist and vice president of engineering at The Walt Disney Company. “We also need to build inclusive programs throughout the education process—and then as companies, we need to recruit and build a culture that nurtures and retains top female talent.”
Engineering companies—including General Motors, Lockheed Martin, and Siemens—are supporting STEM initiatives, programs, and measures to encourage a change of culture in diversity and inclusion.
Professional societies such as the Society of Women Engineers are providing mentors and sponsors to help women progress in their careers. ASME also offers networking events for women in engineering, providing them opportunity to hear from women leaders and meet peers.
More women are advancing in the engineering field.
There are many influential women—educators, innovators, leaders—who are not only breaking the stereotype but are also role models and mentors for the next generation of female engineers.
Here we spotlight 10 women engineers who are transforming the fields of bioengineering, energy, robotics, and manufacturing and paving the way for other women to follow.
Working on board the International Space Station in December 2018 on her first spaceflight as part of Expedition 59, 60, and 61, Christina Koch broke the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman set by former station commander Peggy Whitson. Koch achieved another historic milestone when she took part in the first all-female spacewalk in October 2019 with Jessica Meir. Koch graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Her career began as an electrical engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics, where she contributed to scientific instruments on several NASA missions studying cosmology and astrophysics. She was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2013 and completed astronaut candidate training in July 2015.
VP Medical Devices, Healthcare, 3D Systems
Katie Weimer is revolutionizing healthcare by combining powerful digital workflows with the ability to create templates, guides, instruments, and even implants using 3D-printing technologies. Weimer received her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering as well as master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Originally with Medical Modeling, she moved over to 3D Systems when the company was acquired in 2013 and has taken on roles of increasing responsibility since then. At 3D Systems, Weimer currently leads healthcare operations in Denver, Colo., and Leuven, Belgium, specializing in Virtual Surgical Planning, 3D-printed medical devices, and patient-specific anatomical models, surgical guides and templates. She draws on her considerable experience to lead 3DS medical device development and sales and manufacturing activities and is passionate about enabling clinicians to be better prepared and to see improved patient outcomes and reduced operating room times.
President and COO, SpaceX
Gwynne Shotwell has been an innovator in aerospace and made significant technical contributions to the design of reusable rockets at SpaceX, propelling the company to new heights in space commercialization. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and master’s degree in applied mathematics, with honors, from Northwestern University in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Shotwell was the seventh employee at SpaceX when she joined in 2002 as vice president of business development and built the Falcon vehicle family manifest to more than 70 launches, representing more than $10 billion in business. She achieved her first major success at SpaceX in December 2008 when she helped get its first big customer, NASA, which awarded SpaceX the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. In her current position since 2008, Shotwell is responsible for day-to-day operations and for managing customer and strategic relations. Under her technical guidance, SpaceX has completed many successful missions and plans to send astronauts to ISS and then to Mars in the 2020s.
Further Reading: Sunita Williams Soars Weightlessly
MIT, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering
As the Gail E. Kendall Professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, Evelyn Wang is transforming the engineering curriculum by implementing new educational models and grand research challenges that will impact the way mechanical engineering is being taught not only at MIT but also in other universities. Wang earned her bachelor’s degree from MIT, and her master’s and doctorate from Stanford University. An internationally recognized leader in phase change heat transfer on nanostructure surfaces, Wang’s research focuses on high-efficiency energy and water systems. Her work on solar cells that convert heat into focused beams of light was named as one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 breakthrough technologies of 2017. Her work on the development of a device that can extract fresh water from the air in arid environments was selected by Scientific Americanand the World Economic Forum as one of 2017’s most promising emerging technologies.
Founder and CEO, Black Girls Code
Kimberly Bryant is an electrical engineer, who through her nonprofit, hopes to encourage young girls, especially those from minorities, to remain involved in STEM and increase awareness within the field. Bryant earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University. In 2011, she founded Black Girls Code, a training course that teaches basic programming concepts to girls who are underrepresented in technology careers. She founded Black Girls Code after her daughter expressed an interest in learning computer programming, and none of the available courses in the Bay area were well-suited for her and rarely had other African American girls attending. African American women make up less than 3 percent of the workforce in the tech industry and Black Girls Code fights to change and improve this percentage for the better. The organization already has trained 3,000 girls in seven chapters in cities in the U.S., and has one chapter in Johannesburg, South Africa, with plans to add chapters in eight more cities.
CEO, Fetch Robotics
Melonee Wise is the force behind Fetch Robotics that is delivering advanced robots for the logistics industry. She holds bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and physics engineering and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wise was the second employee at Willow Garage, a research and development laboratory extremely influential in the advancement of robotics. Armed with her extensive experience in open source Robot Operating System and leading a team of engineers developing next-generation robot hardware and software, she founded Fetch Robotics in 2014. The company has grown under her leadership and is now a key player in the robotics as a service industry that make robot deployments a fast and cost-effective way to adopt robotics and automated technologies in warehouses without the large capital investments and in-house expertise.
Co-Founder, Chief Scientific Officer, Dimension Inx
Ramille Shah is advancing the biomaterials and tissue engineering fields with her expertise in developing and characterizing new biomaterial strategies for tissue and organ engineering. Shah earned her bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering (MSE) at Northwestern University and her doctorate in MSE with a specialty in biomaterials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She heads the Shah Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Bioengineering where she is currently a research associate professor. Shah has established herself as a renowned leader in materials development for 3D printing. In 2016, she co-founded Dimension Inx, to facilitate the translation and commercialization of the 3D-printable material technologies developed in her lab. As chief scientific officer of Dimension Inx, Shah has been guiding the overall scientific strategy of the company.
Learn about 5 Women Pioneers in Engineering
Chairman and CEO, General Motors Company
GM’s first female CEO and the first woman to lead any major automaker, Mary Barra has been strengthening GM’s core business of cars, trucks, and crossovers, while also working to lead the transformation of personal mobility through advanced technologies like connectivity, electrification, autonomous driving, and car sharing. Barra has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Barra began her career with GM in 1980 as a General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division. She rose through the ranks and served as vice president, Global Human Resources; vice president, Global Manufacturing Engineering; plant manager, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly; and in several other executive engineering and staff positions before becoming CEO in 2014. She envisions a world with zero crashes to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion.
VP & CTO, GE Renewable Energy
Driven by her passion for renewable energy, Danielle Merfeld is spearheading technical efforts to develop differentiated products and services across a broad renewable energy portfolio at GE, which combines onshore and offshore wind, blades, hydro, storage, utility-scale solar, and grid solutions as well as hybrid renewables and digital services offerings. Merfeld received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and doctorate in electrical engineering from Northwestern University. Prior to her current role, she was the vice president and general manager at GE Global Research Center. Before moving to GE’s global research division, Merfeld ran the company’s solar business, working on ways to make solar electricity accessible and affordable for communities. She is currently the co-leader of the GE Women’s Network, a global organization focused on the recruiting, retention, development and promotion of talented women across the company.
CEO and Chief Engineer, Adafruit Industries
Limor “Ladyada” Fried is an engineer, open source hardware and software pioneer, and entrepreneur. Fried earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and a master’s degree in EECS at MIT. She founded the educational electronics company Adafruit from her dorm room at MIT in 2005, with a goal to create the best place online for learning electronics and making the best-designed products for makers of all ages and skill levels. Under her leadership, Adafruit has grown to over 100+ employees in the heart of New York City and has expanded offerings to include tools, equipment, and electronics that Fried personally selects, tests, and approves before going into the Adafruit store. Fried was the first female engineer to grace the cover of WIRED and named a White House Champion of Change in 2016. In 2018 Fried became one of “America’s Top 50 Women in Tech” by Forbes magazine.