Engineering is a field which interests and affects everyone but historically, as in many other fields, there have been comparatively few women at the forefront. A few brave trailblazers have broken the mold and clawed their way to the top of their field. Here are three of the best, but certainly not the only groundbreaking female engineers who have stories that inspire us all.
Born into a Polish family in Pennsylvania, Stephanie Kwolek was not born as a part of an insiders club, her family was educated but not wealthy and a scientific career was rarely considered an option for women at the time. She excelled at school and won a place at university. She took up her place studying the little chosen subject for women, Chemistry.
Kwolek had once dreamed of becoming a doctor but after taking a temporary post as a researcher she found that the field of chemical engineering allowed her to follow her passion for scientific inquiry. It was whilst researching a more dynamic alternative to nylon that Stephanie developed Kevlar, a revolutionary material in terms of how light and resilient it is. Kevlar is a household name to anyone involved in motorcycle sports, transport, skiing, snowboarding, and even anyone who uses climbing cables. It has also changed the world or protective equipment, being used in stab-proof vests for those in dangerous situations. Kevlar can even provide some protection against a bullet. Stephanie Kwolek passed away several years ago leaving behind her a literally bullet-proof legacy for female engineers.
Amy Johnson was an engineer and by any standard, an adventurer. She was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia. Her adventurous spirit led her to engineering and propelled her forward in the field. She discovered aviation as a hobby but it drew her in and she was the first woman to hold a ground engineers certificate in Britain, as well as acquiring her pilots’ license. She acted as her own ground engineer and revamped her first aeroplane while still in her 20s and flew to India, Europe, and even crash-landed outside New York.
She was awarded the role of President of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1934 and remained active in her role, communicating and inspiring other female engineers until her tragic death, after a crash in stormy waters in 1941. She was a true adventurer and a literal trailblazer.
Our third trailblazer is Daphne Jackson, a nuclear engineer and a campaigner for the ability of female professionals to remain in their roles after having a family. She also sat as the president of the Women’s Engineering Society and provided fellowships for women returning to the engineering field after having children. She was the first British female professor in a Physics department, she did high-level work for the meteorological office and made an enormous contribution to medical physics, suggesting improvements that could be made by the use of nuclear physics in cancer treatment. Sadly her health failed her and cancer itself cut her life short, but not before she had produced research which instituted lasting change, used in modern oncology practice to this day.
Today there are more women in every part of STEM fields, but these women helped to open the door for all of the wonderful women in engineering today.