Stephanie Kwolek the inventor of Kevlar

Engineering's most ingenious women

E&T discovers history's most inspired women who have been making barely-heralded contributions to science and engineering for centuries

When Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her performance in 'Black Swan' earlier this year, the New York Times published lesser-known details of her career. It turns out that in high school, before studying neuroscience at Harvard, Portman reached the semi-final rounds of the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search research competition with a method for converting waste into energy. Previous winners and near-winners, the article said, had gone on to gather seven Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals in mathematics and other notable awards.

Back in the UK, the newspapers focused on Oscar-nominated actresses' frocks and Lord Davies' report about women's woeful representation (12.5 per cent) on corporate boards – although not in the same breath.

It was Lord Davies who inspired the Independent to look at gender ratios in the wider UK workplace through professional and trade body membership ratios. Careers requiring scientific qualifications are still male-dominated, the newspaper found. Vets were the most balanced of the bunch (55 per cent male to 45 per cent female), with members of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers the least, (96.6 per cent male – around the same percentage as train drivers). Since mechanical engineering is largely done on computers and the steam age is long past, neither career needs the physical strength that might explain such a high bias.

Engineering UK's latest report on the state of British engineering in its entirety tells a similar story. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in the EU at only 9 per cent, compared to 18 per cent in Spain, 20 per cent in Italy and 26 per cent in Sweden.

In America, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the figure is around 11 per cent. Meanwhile, out of 3,000 British parents with children aged 4-17 recently surveyed by The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, 36 per cent regarded engineering as man's work.

Natalie Portman might, of course, go on to make a Nobel-prize winning contribution to science or engineering, but she is an example of one of countless girls and women who 'drop out at key stages of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) pipeline'. Cultural factors and gender stereotypes, it seems, remain a strong negative influence. How do we change this?

Forward-thinking females

One notion that still has to be challenged is that men are inherently more scientifically and technically able than women. This idea was knocked on the head years ago, not least by the author Deborah Jaffé in her acclaimed book 'Ingenious Women', which showed that throughout history women have been invisibly making significant contributions to scientific discoveries, innovation and inventions. The book was based on original research by Jaffé, who has a background in design and cultural history, into the hundreds of women who, before 1914, invented all variety of gadgets and devices.

Although the book came out in 2003, interest in it continues, especially from highly qualified professional women who still encounter the barriers of false assumptions, says Jaffé. 'My research shows that women can do this and we do not have to break any new ground. I would also say that we should think big and not get sidetracked designing parochial gadgetry involved with having babies and looking after children, which is something I have observed recently.'

The impetus for 'Ingenious Women' came from enquiries Jaffé made to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in preparation for an interview on BBC Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour'.

She had just written a book about Queen Victoria and the social and technological changes during her reign, and the interviewer, Corinne Julius, wanted to focus more generally on women and innovation in the 19th century. The RSA's archivist faxed Jaffé a list of 23 women patent holders exhibiting at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The inventions were as diverse as a collapsible and noiseless coalscuttle (Miss Barron) and a method for getting metals out of rock (Mrs Barnston-Parnell).

'I arrived at the British Library with my list of 23 women and asked the patent expert Steve Van Dulken what was the first patent registered by a woman. Astonishingly, he told me it was in 1637, only 76 years after Elizabeth I awarded the first patent,' she explains. 'It was very moving to see the original, filed by Amye Everard Ball for her tincture of saffron. When I asked how many more there were like her, Steve said no-one had ever looked.'

Jaffé went to the British Library every day for four months painstakingly searching for female inventors in the historical patent records. 'It was incredibly exciting because I would find patents from companies like Siemens and Westinghouse and between them would be a woman's name,' she says.

Generally, these women designed alone, the dishwasher being a classic example. Teams in Britain, Germany and the US were working on machines that could do the washing up, but Josephine Garis-Cochran, the daughter of a civil engineer in Chicago, in 1886 came up with the basis of what we use today. Her machine was exhibited at the 1983 Chicago Fair and she established the Garis-Cochran Dish Washing Machine Company, which became KitchenAid, now owned by Whirlpool.

Behind every good man

What Jaffé found striking was how women had been written out of the inventor's paradise that was the 19th century. For instance in 1811, Sarah Guppy patented a system for sinking piles into riverbanks to suspend a bridge and yet she does not feature in any histories of engineering or bridge building even though her patent predated both Thomas Telford and Brunel.

The social and cultural background was not encouraging. In Britain, women were excluded from taking degrees until the late 19th century, and married women couldn't own property until 1884. Such obstacles make it all the more remarkable that so many women managed to file patents.

Last year, Jaffé wrote a chapter for 'Innovating Women: Contributions to Technological Advancement' (Emerald Press, 2010) which included women inventors working after 1914 such as mathematician and physicist Hertha Ayrton, whose patents included search-lights for detecting enemy aircraft; Beatrice Shilling, who patented a valve to stop the engines in WW2 Spitfires from cutting out; and Stephanie Kwolek, who invented the lightweight bullet- and stab-proof fabric Kevlar. All were new to me.

One reason for this invisibility, says Jaffé, is the entrenched 'great men' view of the history of science and technology, where women have been assigned the role of menial assistants or just admirers, an argument outlined in Patricia Fara's book 'Pandora's Breeches'. Fara shows that much of the science and invention in the 19th century was part of everyday life. While women were excluded from universities, they participated widely in scientific projects in private houses and enterprises. An example from the 18th century is Josiah Wedgewood's wife Sarah, who worked with him to refine innovative techniques for manufacturing ceramics.

Those who have written about women in science and innovation as pioneers, treating them as curiosities, have not helped. 'It is in some people's interest to say that women inventors are odd, the archetype being Florence Nightingale [famous for altering the design of hospitals] who went to the Crimean War and then stayed in bed for years. Oher women went to the Crimean War too and didn't do that,' says Jaffé.

'Hertha Ayrton had a 'normal' life, she was married, she had a child and she ran a house. Marie Curie may have been the first person ever to get two Nobel prizes but she was certainly not odd, she had a husband, a child and then got cancer. If it is made out that these women are anomalies, it doesn't encourage us to be like them.'

Breaking the mould

In 'Innovating Women: Contributions to Technological Advancement', Pooran Wynarczyk, director of the Small Enterprise Research Unit at Newcastle University, and Susan Marlow, Professor of Entrepreneurship at De Montfort University, suggest that the focus on barriers and low participation may constitute 'a self-fulfilling prophecy', which is hindering women's progress.

Research has shown that interest in science and technology subjects is high in both sexes up the age of ten, but it diminishes in girls afterwards. 'If I could wave a magic wand over the UK education system,' Wynarczyk tells me, 'I would use more recent female role models in the formal educational curriculum. We also need to change the image of scientists embedded in the mind of young people from their textbooks.'

One positive recent initiative is the UKRC's Ingenious Women: Communicating a Passion for Engineering scheme, which ended in March 2011 and was funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE). The scheme provided 20 women engineers with training and support to enable them to share their interest in engineering by raising their profile in their organisations and the media.

None of these engineers single out gender as being of any relevance to their career. From an early age, they liked problem solving and were curious about how things worked – and they were not discouraged from pursuing these interests. For Chloe Agg, it was a fascination with her grandfather's model traction engines; for Katy Deacon, the actuators and motors in Lego Technic. Carmen Torres-Sanchez, a chemical engineering researcher at Heriot-Watt University specialising in bio-mimetic structures, had been encouraged to look at life in a scientific way. 'It was always the 'why' question in my family,' she said.

But when talking to young people, they have each found that outdated stereotypes persist. 'In face-to-face discussions with children I generally ask the question: what do you think I do?' explains Deacon, an energy engineer with Kirklees Council, who was the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year in 2007. 'Typical guesses are that I work in an office and perhaps do typing! So we need to break down the stereotypes of who is an engineer and introduce some reality.'

Deacon suggests that the UKRC, the RAE and the IET might think about funding a DVD for schools presenting children with profiles of, say, five women involved in different branches of engineering to help to change perceptions. 'It would be so easy to do it now, because we have 20 of us Ingenious Women as sitting ducks,' she adds. It would also make sense to run an Ingenious Women scheme every year, recommends Torres-Sanchez.

Chloe Agg, a building services engineer (one of only three women engineers in a company of 67 designing air-conditioning and piped services such as steam and compressed air for pharmaceutical factories and food production) points out that the communication confidence developed through the scheme has been hugely beneficial not only in spreading the word about the benefits of an engineering career, but also in day to day work.

This is important because time and again, articulate, intellectual women talk about their reluctance to put themselves forwards.

Professor Joan Taylor, the inventor of the artificial pancreas (see box) neatly sums up the problem – and a solution – with some advice given by a female Dean of earth sciences who was speaking at a 'Women in Science' day some years back. 'She told us: when you get a grant rejection letter, many of you will give up or spend six months crying about it and thinking you are useless. The men get these letters too and they also feel like that' but only for ten minutes. Then they go and write another application. Remember that and do likewise.' This could apply to a number of situations, says Taylor.

The reasons why girls and women pirouette away from careers in engineering and science are many and varied, but with half of UK employers having difficulty recruiting staff with STEM skills, according to a recent the survey for The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, it is time we took this brain drain seriously.

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