Feb 15, 2020 in Exploratory

Women in Engineering

Nowadays much attention is paid to the development of science, engineering, and technologies because scientific investigations in these fields shape the future of the society. This development started in the ancient times and lasts at present. However, not all people could take part in scientific work. For hundreds of years women faced discrimination in these fields and were forbidden from performing certain activities. Moreover, for thousands of years they could not receive education and practice science, like men. The female researchers were perceived as something uncommon. Their works were not published or recognized by the scientific society. However, over time the situation has changed. Women acquired an ability to educate and perform their scientific work on equal terms with men. However, they still face biased attitude and discrimination in the scientific field. The rapid technological development and scientific shift that happened in the recent years improved this situation and led to mitigation of gender inequality. On the other hand, these processes cause new challenges to female scientists, which will be discussed in the current work. The depiction of how women’s role in the development of science, engineering, and technology changed over the course of history will help to gain an understanding of the major challenges and ways to address them.

The Historical Background of the Role of Women in the Development of Science and Technology

Women started to be engaged in the scientific development centuries ago. The first woman physician was Merit Ptah, who lived and worked in about 2700 B.C.. Among the first female scientists one can name En Hedu’ Anna. She was one of Babylon’s priestess who studied astronomy and mathematics and developed calendars in about 2350 B.C.. Women scientists can be also found in Ancient Athens. In about 4th century B.C. Agnocide tried to practice medicine by representing herself as a male health care provider. In Ancient Greece women were forbidden to heal. Thus, Agnocide was put on a trial but was saved by her patients. About a century later, a female mathematician Hypatia occupied the major position in the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy located in Alexandria. These real-life examples show that notwithstanding the exiting limitations, victimizations, and even life threats, women still worked as scientists and made their contribution to the scientific development in various fields in ancient times.


Later historical development is connected with a greater support of scientific works by women. In the Middle Ages, nuns who conducted research were supported by the Church, like the cosmologist Hildegard of Bingen who worked in the 12th century. Thus, the development of the society was reflected in the change of the role of females in the scientific sphere and greater support of powerful institutions of that time.

Further feminization of the institution of science can be observed in the 17th century. This time period is characterized by establishment of universities in the big European cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin. Despite the fact that women were prohibited from attending the highest educational institutions for over 300 years, they still occupied a significant place in the scientific society and even worked in the above mentioned educational institutions. For example, German astronomer Maria Winkelmann was appointed as an assistant astronomer in the Berlin Academy. The existing limitations still did not stop women from carrying out scientific research.

Additional attention should be paid to the fact that female scientists received greater support in France and Italy than in other parts of the European continent. These societies highly approved of the work of Italian obstetrician and gynecologist Tortula in the 11th century; Italian linguist, philosopher, and mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi in the 18th century; the first anatomist who officially help the position of educator in the European University of Bologna Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (18th century); and French mathematician and physicist Emilie du Chatelet (18th century). However, some professions were still closed to female scientists. For example, French physician and surgeon Jacoba Felice was brought to trial for her medical practice in the 13th century because it was forbidden for women. It should be mentioned that Maria Caterina Bassi was the first women appointed by the Pope to teach in a higher educational institution in contemporary times. In spite of the fact she had twelve children, the woman still played an active role in the scientific society and published her works on air pressure and electricity every year.

Notwithstanding the cancellation of this limitation in the 18th century and official recognition of female scientists in the world scientific society, women’s scientific work was not considered as a common and usual thing. Females still faced significant barriers as scientists. The most obvious was discrimination in the higher educational institutions. The first woman who obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine was Elizabeth Blackwell (the middle of the 19th century). She faced significant difficulties in entering a college as she received 29 refusals before being accepted by the Geneva NY College. Furthermore, female scientists faced barriers in publishing of their scientific works, like Ada Lovelance in the 19th century.

In the 20th century the position of women in the scientific world significantly improved as their works became recognized. For example, Polish-French radiochemist and physicist Marie Sklodowska Curie won the Nobel Prize twice: in 1903 for her achievements in physics and in 1911 for her work in chemistry. Moreover, she was the first women who became the scientist-educator at the Sorbonne (France) and even founded the Curie Institutes. Her daughter, radiochemist Irene Joliot-Curie also won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for her work in chemistry.

The role and position of women in the development of science and technology depended on numerous factors. For instance, in the USA the number of females who obtained PhDs significantly increased after popularization of higher education among females in the 1920s. However, the development of conservatism and fascism in the 1930s – 1940s caused reduction in the amount of women in the American scientific society till the 1970s.

At the end of the 20th century – at the beginning of the 21st century the position of women in the scientific society greatly improved. They obtained an ability to receive the higher education, work in every sphere, and even apply for the leading positions. Women made a significant contribution that affected the life of common people during the times of peace and war. For example, American computer scientist Grace Hopper, who developed the first language for computer programming in 1944, attained the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Rachel Carson was American chemist who created contact poison DDT that was widely used during WWII to prevent the spread of diseases transmitted by insects. Rosalind Franklin is widely known for her works on “a superb X-ray diffraction image of DNA”. Jocelyn Bell Burnell “revealed the radiation beam of a rotating neutron star, each pulse representing a single rotation of the star”. These are only some of the names of prominent female scientists and short notifications of their contribution in the development of science and technology.


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