- Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women by Amy Sue Bix
This thoroughly researched volume provides the first systematic history of women in engineering education. Departing from biographical accounts of individual women engineers, Amy Bix has researched campus and alumni papers, local newspapers, letters, and administrative records. The result is a densely narrated book with deep insights into the gendered culture of engineering education. Expanding our understanding of the masculine character of technology, as compared to science or medicine, Bix teaches us as much about engineering and its established practices, meanings, and beliefs as about the women who joined the field.
To begin, Bix establishes the first chronology of women in engineering education. Before World War II brought larger numbers of women onto the campuses of technology institutes for technological training programs, only a few women had “invaded” engineering programs. But during the three decades following WWII, growing numbers of women entered them. Now, coeducational schools such as Purdue, Cornell, and Iowa State admitted more women into their engineering programs, some all-male schools such as RPI became coeducational, and others, like Columbia, opened their engineering programs to women.
The core of Bix’s book provides three geographically and institutionally varied case studies of this transition. At Georgia Tech, women sued for their admission to those engineering programs to which they lacked access at in-state public institutions. In response, Georgia Tech allowed a small number of women into select programs, and in 1965 opened all programs to women. At Caltech, undergraduate students and eventually faculty and administrators advocated for the institute to become coeducational, a step that, students claimed, would improve the campus climate in the midst of the countercultural revolution. Finally, MIT had admitted women since the 1870s. But only after WWII did the numbers increase, and women students successfully organized to improve their situation on campus.
Eye-opening commonalities between these cases abound. To begin with, young women encountered an often sexist culture on campus. Many complained about stares that made them insecure as their male peers openly discussed coeducation in student newspapers and published profiles [End Page 995] of pioneering female students as well as denigrating cartoons. Portrayed primarily as romantic objects, women students found it difficult to relate to their peers intellectually. In addition, college administrators used limited housing as an excuse to curb the number of women, and remote locations of dormitories often isolated women from their male peers. Many women responded by supporting and mentoring each other. They created handbooks with maps of women’s bathrooms on campus, formed peer or big sister programs, and founded the Society of Women Engineers. They also navigated a delicate balance of highlighting their feminine identity without being seen as too feminine.
In the last three decades, campus climates have begun to accommodate women, partly through the efforts of women’s organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, and partly through programs like NSF’s ADVANCE grants that aim at advancing the numbers and careers of women and minorities in the STEM disciplines. While blatantly sexist discrimination has subsided, the self-assurance of women often still suffers from the stereotype threat of negative comments about women’s potential as engineers, as well as from the subtle, mostly non-deliberate microdiscrimination of biases and marginalization.
Bix’s book provides a much-needed historical perspective on the vexing question of women in one of the STEM disciplines. The three cases offer colorful and in-depth insights into the sexist culture of engineering education, although some readers may wonder whether the selected cases are representative of the larger engineering field or present exceptional outliers. Bix provides an excellent basis for future studies that examine additional factors of exclusion such as class and race as well as their intersection with gender; for example, it is notable that many pioneering women were the daughters of engineers or of alumni of the schools they attended. The book is a must-read for those interested in engineering history, women...