Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! It has been 44 years since the United Nations officially recognised March 8 as International Women’s Day—and more than a hundred years since we’ve been celebrating women in some way or another during this special month—but there are so many achievements to recognise and celebrate.
It’s 2021, but many people still don’t think about women when thinking about the science, technology, and mathematics industries. We all know about scientist-extraordinaire Marie Curie, but did you know that a woman named Grace Murray Hopper was a part of the team of developers that made the first modern-day computer possible?
The same can be said about women and work in engineering. We’re sure that you’ve heard about Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla. Can you name a famous female engineer at the top of your head?
Unfortunately, history hasn’t given the brilliant women behind many of our world’s innovations due credit. We want to change that. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re going to shine some light on some of the most influential women in engineering.
There is so much to learn from these smart women of yesterday and today. To inspire you and your team, here are nine female engineers that made—and are making!—history:
1. Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu
On November 10, 2018, Google Doodle featured a drawing of one of the first female engineers in the world. Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu was born on this day in 1887. She was one of eleven children who grew up in a small Romanian town. She was a top student but was rejected from her university of choice simply because she was a woman. Obviously, that did not stop her.
Elisa earned her degree from Berlin’s Royal Technical Academy in three years. Back in 1912, it was major news in her home country, Romania. The exams one had to pass to become an engineer were no laughing matter—and they were especially impressed that a woman was able to do so with great ease.
Elisa went on to become the first female member of the General Association of Romanian Engineers. As she worked, her field of expertise extended to geology and economics. It was only after she had achieved so much in her career, before she settled down and got married. She became a wife, a mother, and a teacher. In 1993, a street in Romania’s capital city of Bucharest was named in her honor.
2. Edith Clarke
While we’re on the topic of firsts, allow us to introduce you to Edith Clarke—the mother of invention. She was the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was also the first woman to be officially employed as an electrical engineer and the first female professor of electrical engineering in the United States.
Like Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu, Edith’s road toward becoming an engineer was not easy. “I had always wanted to be an engineer, but felt that women were not supposed to be doing things like studying engineering,” she said.
Lucky for us, Edith shrugged away that feeling. She persisted and eventually became a part of the General Electric Company. First as a human-computer, and later as an electrical engineer. Thanks to her, we have phone lines, graphical calculators, and an exceptional woman to look up to as #goals.
3. Mary W. Jackson
Another first! If you’ve watched the 2016 film Hidden Figures, you would know who we’re talking about. The character Janelle Monae portrayed was 100% real and 100% a woman who did not let any obstacles get in her way.
Mary W. Jackson was NASA’s first female African American Engineer. She began her career as a mathematician—a human-computer like Edith Clarke—but she wanted more. She wanted to be an aerospace engineer, and she did not let the fact that she was a woman or a person of colour in the middle of the 20th century prevent that from happening.
Sometime in the 1950s, on top of already being a mother and a wife, Mary filed a petition for the City of Hampton to allow her to take night classes at an all-white high school. This was because, to obtain her aerospace engineering degree, she needed to take a couple of courses that were only offered at a specific high school that she could not be admitted to due to existing segregation laws. It took some convincing but her petition was subsequently granted.
A product of her time, Mary had no choice but to be the first at many things. Today, we are all immensely grateful to her for her brilliance and bravery. We would not have been able to safely land someone on the moon if it were not for Mary!
4. Tahani Amer
NASA has come a long way since the 1950s. Did you know that at least a third of their employees are now women? Dr. Tahani Amer—an Egyptian Muslim woman who holds both a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering is one of them.
It all started when Tahani saw her father fix a car engine. She developed a love for engineering almost immediately after that. In 1983, even though she did not speak a word of English, Tahani flew to the United States for university. And the rest was history.
Tahani is currently a program executive at NASA, ensuring the success of its missions through the conduct of independent review assessments. She endured a string of rejections before she was able to secure a permanent job here. At the beginning of her career, Tahani worked with wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics. This led to a patented invention that can measure the thermal conductivity of thin films.
5. Diana Trujillo
Just last month, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars after a 203-day journey from our home planet to one of its nearest neighbors in the solar system. We have a strong Latina woman to thank for that.
“As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot. It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say I’m not going to give up on my dream. I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value, that women matter,” Diana Trujillo recalled in an interview.
Born to rough conditions in Colombia, Diana never imagined when she ‘landed’ as an immigrant in the United States that she would one day help land an exploration rover on another planet. She only had $300.00 then, and the only jobs that would hire her were random housekeeping and cleaning gigs.
Diana was a working student. She used the money she earned from her many odd jobs to pay for community college. When her means allowed her to, she transferred to the University of Florida where she studied aerospace engineering. This was where she gathered the knowledge she needed to later become the flight director of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover’s robotic arm.
6. MiMi Aung
Keep yourself up-to-date on news about Mars 2020 and the Mars Perseverance Rover. In a few weeks, it is set to deploy the Mars Ingenuity—the soon-to-be first aircraft to have flown on another planet. Believe it or not, another woman is responsible for this manmade marvel.
MiMi Aung is one of NASA’s lead engineers. She was the woman in charge of making the Mars Ingenuity. She was born in the United States but grew up in Myanmar. At the age of 16, she left her home country to pursue her dream.
“Going back to what I grew up with, [I was] inspired by my mum [who was] always sure-footed [and] based on logic and equations. That’s what you really go back to and lean on when you face difficult challenges,” she said.
It runs in the family for MiMi Aung. Her mother was the first woman in Myanmar to earn a doctoral degree in mathematics. She was what inspired MiMi to earn her engineering degrees in the United States and to actively advocate and work for the role of women in space exploration to be equal.
7. Josephine Santiago-Bond
Having been born into a family of scientists and doctors, it was always going to be engineering for Filipina-American Josephine Santiago-Bond. She just did not know that her love for science was going to bring her to infinity and beyond.
“I never thought I would get as far as I have,” Josephine said herself. After getting her degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from the University of the Philippines, any telecommunications job would have been enough for her. The world had other plans.
One summer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center—that was all it took for Josephine to realise that her love for engineering could extend beyond simple electronics. Among so many other things, it allowed multiple spacecraft missions to orbit the moon!
Josephine is a certified superwoman. What is her secret, you ask? Support and a great work environment at NASA. “I love that NASA’s policies have assisted me in both as an engineering supervisor and as a wife and a mom,” she said. “[T]hat allows me to continue to give my best to NASA and be there for my family when it matters.”
8. Kathleem Aviso
We have talked about so many women who have had instrumental hands in discovering outer space and other planets. Now, here is a woman who is making sure that the planet we are living in remains intact for generations to come.
Filipina Kathleen Aviso is one of Asia’s Rising Scientists. A chemical engineer by profession, she saw how climate change has now become the world’s greatest challenge to overcome and decided to pursue a degree in environmental engineering and management. She is also a doctor of industrial engineering.
“With the right training and mindset, researchers […] can do more,” Kathleen says. Indeed, she has done so much. She has developed mathematical models for designing sustainable industrial systems, created game theories that simulate and optimise how governments can influence the industry to invest in green technologies, and won countless awards.
“As a woman and a mother of two boys, […] balancing work and family responsibilities is a major challenge. This is a challenge many women scientists have to face,” Kathleen shares. “[But] humanity’s biggest challenge is climate change. This is why a lot of my recent work has been on low-carbon energy systems.”
9. Dr. Marlene Kanga
From Romania to the United States to the Philippines, we had traveled the world talking about famous female engineers. For the last—but not the least!—amazing woman on our list, we are heading to Australia.
Dr. Marlene Kanga AM FTSE Hon.FIEAust Hon.FIChemE. We know it’s an earful, but this woman deserves all the respect there is. Born and raised in India, Marlene pursued further engineering studies at the Imperial College, London. She racked up knowledge, titles, and degrees and established an illustrious engineering career in the Land Down Under.
In 2017, Marlene was elected as the president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations. Imagine that—a woman leading organisations from over 100 nations and more or less 30 million engineers!
“No one in my family told me that girls don’t do engineering,” Marlene recollected. She had to learn how male-dominated this field was the hard way. It was true that men in engineering were five times as many as women. Marlene knew that but she was not going to accept it lying down. She became an advocate and inspiration for women who have been told no.
“It is difficult to promote engineering to women if they are not offered the chance of sustainable, lifelong careers,” Marlene says. “What companies need to do is bring women back after they start a family, giving them flexible working and job-sharing opportunities. They need to be encouraged and supported into finding a good work-life balance.”
Were you surprised to see so many awe-inspiring women on our list? There are so many more amazing, smart women across all industries making their mark and creating a better tomorrow for everyone. As these women from the past and present have shown, women played a big part in history and will continue to play major roles in our future. It’s only the beginning!
Happy International Women’s Day & Happy History Month, everyone.
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