The following transcript is an excerpt of an interview with history professor Amy Bix of Iowa State University. Host Jason Dressel spoke with her about women in technology in honor of Women’s History Month. Listen to the full interview here.
Jason Dressel: Amy, welcome to History Factory Plugged In. Thanks for joining us.
Amy Bix: Thank you for having me.
JD: You’ve studied the history of women, particularly through the fields of engineering and other technical fields. How would you summarize the narrative arc of the history of women’s progress in those fields?
AB: Well, speaking specifically about the history of women in engineering in the United States, the important context to know is that engineering for many centuries had ties to the military and to industry. And as you can imagine, those weren’t areas that traditionally had a lot of openings to women. So, from the beginning, a lot of engineering was associated specifically with masculinity. At the very end of the 1800s and the early 1900s, you have just a handful of women getting into studying engineering at public land-grant schools. But they’re really doing it as individuals. They don’t know enough other women engineers to talk to. And as you can imagine, they had a pretty rough time because everyone basically assumed that engineering was a field for men. So, a lot of the press coverage of that handful of women engineers talks about women invading men’s field.
The thing that really changed is World War II. Most people have heard of Rosie the Riveter, the women who worked on the assembly lines in factories in World War II. What people don’t always realize is that those same factories were facing a manpower shortage in the engineering shop. So, all of a sudden, employers were begging to hire women engineers, and they realized there was only this handful of them out there. So, World War II actually started some crash programs by government and industry and universities to give women some really quick training in engineering so they could go help out and win the war.
After World War II was over, it’s not like everything changed overnight. But it’s no coincidence that over subsequent decades, things started to open up a little bit more specifically, some prestigious engineering schools that had traditionally been all-male decided or were pressured to begin admitting women. And in the ’70s and ’80s, you started to see more universities creating programs to encourage and support women in engineering. So, the number gradually went up, and then it plateaued. It got stuck at roughly 20%. That’s roughly where we are today.
JD: How would you how would you compare the engineering field with other fields, like law or medicine?
AB: There are definite overlaps, but I think overall it is a different historical pattern for precisely the reason that engineering was so embedded in masculine fields of the military and industry in the early 1800s. A lot of men in engineering didn’t have a degree. You didn’t need a degree back then. You just went out and started working on the Erie Canal. And of course, women couldn’t do that.
Whereas with science, there have certainly been a number of barriers and discouragements to women in sciences over the centuries. But even with those barriers, there were always some ways in which women could participate in science, some of them as far back as the early modern period, the scientific revolution. They got a foothold in science by working as assistants to men in their family. Women had places in science as assistants, as illustrators, as translators. That was very clearly something that was acceptable for women. You see the same thing in medicine. Even over the centuries, when women were formally excluded from medical school, women were still by default family healers, community healers. Women always worked as midwives. So, in science and medicine, women could get footholds in ways that really just didn’t exist for women in engineering. And I think that made a long-term difference.
JD: What have been some of the key arguments in more recent history for why gender equality in an industry like engineering is desirable?
AB: Well, part of it simply is fairness. Giving women access to those employment opportunities is a matter of justice. More than that, there’s the question about who does engineering, whether it makes a difference. Science is the answers you get depending on the questions you ask. It’s not like all women do science and engineering one way and all men do it another way. But patterns have shown that when you diversify your field, it opens up new questions. And sometimes having a more diverse engineering team will just raise new issues that might not otherwise have even been thought of.
So, there are a lot of examples. In some ways, certain biases can be literally built into systems. A classic example is airbags, where those systems were designed for car drivers who were basically men of a certain height and weight. And what that means is that women like me, who are 5 feet tall, we have to sit a lot closer to the steering wheel, which introduces a lot more physical risks, even death, with the way those systems are designed. All those are reasons to think about diversity in engineering and technical work.
JD: Yeah, that’s a great point. I know one of the areas that you’ve studied as part of this topic is childhood experience, iconography and pop culture and children’s play. I’m curious on your perspective there, on how this has perhaps held back women from being able to pursue engineering and other more technically related fields?
AB: Absolutely. So, again, the idea is that part of the way to get more women into engineering was to familiarize them with the field. Early in the 20th century, you had a number of toys on the market that were specifically intended to steer boys into engineering. The best example is the Erector set. Advertisements for Erector sets literally used the tag line, “Hello, boys.” And the message to parents was, you should buy your young son the set because then he’ll begin tinkering and it will prepare him for a valuable career down the road as an engineer.
In the last 15 years, there’s been a whole entrepreneurial explosion of toys specifically designed to get more girls into engineering. And the best example of that is a line of toys called GoldieBlox kits. And those were designed by a woman engineer specifically to get more girls interested in hands-on tinkering. That’s something that you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago. But now they’re out there. So, it is fun to look at the history of toys and STEM and gender.
JD: So, Amy, you mentioned the growth or increase of women in the field really hasn’t changed for quite some time. You mentioned that it’s around 20%. How long has it been stuck there?
AB: The numbers in the United States have roughly plateaued since the early 2000s.
JD: And why do you think that is?
AB: Well, I think there are a bunch of misconceptions. I mean, probably one of the most fatal is the idea that that’s somehow inevitable. And the problem is when you look at other countries, they actually have a higher percentage of women in engineering and technical jobs, which suggests that it’s something cultural. That’s not something simply inevitable or biological. So that’s something important to keep in mind now. And people always ask, you know, what’s the solution? And the problem is, if there were a nice, neat, simple, easy solution, we probably would have done it by now. And so, part of the challenge is that some of the biggest barriers have now been eliminated or reduced universally that once literally wouldn’t let a woman into classes. Now you don’t have that problem. Engineering societies that didn’t appoint female members, now a number of them have women as presidents.
So, some of the most obvious barriers have gone. But unfortunately, what that means is we’re left with these more subtle questions that go back to the STEM world and gender, sexual harassment, discrimination. Then there are also the more subtle questions of bias that discourage women and minorities from getting into these fields. And those are just, by definition, much harder to deal with.
JD: Are you optimistic or more pessimistic in terms of the prospect for that changing over the next decade or so?
AB: I wouldn’t expect any radical jump unless something happens that I completely can’t anticipate. But over the long run, I do think there are reasons to be optimistic in that you have some very, very good people in places like the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Engineering, the Girl Scouts, elementary schools, museums. They are working very, very hard to encourage more girls and others to explore STEM fields.
JD: Well, Amy, thank you so much for sharing your perspective on a very complex topic. We appreciate your insights. Thank you very much.
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