Historically, there has been a lack of female engineers due to the societal attitudes about working women in a field that men so heavily dominated.
Many women had the skills and qualifications to be certified engineers. However, only some professional bodies would accept them as members.
In 2020, the Women’s Engineering Society reported that just 14.5% of all engineers are women.
These are the pioneering women who led the way for future women engineers.
1. Hertha Ayrton
Hertha Marks Ayrton was a British engineer, mathematician, physicist, inventor and suffragette.
Aryton attended Girton College, Cambridge, the first residential college for women, with the help of her Suffragette mentor, Barbara Bodichon.
During Aryton’s career, she was granted 26 patents, including a line divider, a mathematical tool and an engineering drawing instrument. She later developed the ‘Ayrton anti-gas fan’, designed to combat trench gas during the First World War.
The War Office initially dismissed her invention, but with support from a fellow electrical engineer, A. P. Trotter, 104,000 fans were ordered for the Western Front.
Ayrton helped pave the way for future female engineers as she was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.
In 1905, she was awarded the Hughes Medal for her impressive work on electric arcs and ripple marks in sand and water.
Aryton’s former home in Norfolk Square, London, is marked by a blue plaque.
2. Delia Derbyshire
Delia Derbyshire was an English musician, electronic music composer and sound engineer.
After graduating from the University of Cambridge with a degree in math and music, Derbyshire looked for work with the record label Decca. However, they rejected her as they would not employ women in their studios.
Derbyshire instead joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963. During her 11 years at the workshop, she created sound and music for almost 200 radio and TV shows.
One of her most iconic creations was the electronic arrangement for the science-fiction television show ‘Doctor Who’. She created this piece alongside Australian composer Ron Grainer.
This arrangement served as the theme for 17 seasons of ‘Doctor Who’, between 1963 and 1980.
Derbyshire was also one of the original members of White Noise, an experimental electronic music band. She helped produce the album ‘An Electric Storm’ during her yearlong band membership.
A blue plaque was awarded to Derbyshire in 2017, located outside of her former home in Coventry, as part of BBC Music Day.
3. Daphne Jackson
Daphne Jackson OBE was a nuclear physicist who became the first female physics professor in the UK in 1971.
Jackson knew the inequalities women faced in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.
She was one of only two women on her physics course at Imperial College and became an active promoter of women in STEM subjects.
As President of the Women’s Engineering Society between 1983 and 1985, she helped to establish the Women in Science and Engineering initiative to encourage girls into science and engineering.
In 1985, Jackson founded the UK’s returner fellowships program, designed to help women return to work following career breaks for childcare. She was awarded an OBE in 1987 for this program.
Jackson has blue plaques on her former home in Guildford, Surrey, and at her former Grammar School in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.
Her legacy is remembered each year on 17 November, Daphne Jackson Day.
4. Caroline Haslett
Dame Caroline Haslett was an electrical engineer who became the first Electrical Association for Women Director in 1924.
After the First World War, Haslett qualified as an electrical engineer.
Haslett became the first Women’s Engineering Society secretary in 1919, which wanted to promote engineering as a professional pathway and for women to hold engineering roles from the First World War.
She also set up the ‘Woman Engineer’, a journal still published today.
Haslett aimed to popularise domestic electricity use to lighten the burden on women.
In 1922, she asked women which appliances would be most helpful in the home. Many responded with a vacuum cleaner and a machine to wash the dishes.
In Crawley, West Sussex, the road ‘Haslett Avenue East’ is named after Caroline and features her blue plaque.
5. Sarah Guppy
Sarah Guppy was an English inventor who was the first woman to patent a bridge.
Her 1811 patent entitled ‘New Mode of Constructing and Erecting Bridges and Railroads without Arches’ was believed to have been used by Thomas Telford when designing the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.
This patent has led to claims that Guppy invented the suspension bridge, including Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
However, her designs were actually for a ‘hanging bridge’.
Sarah had many other patents on domestic appliances, including a precursor to the toaster and a breakfast machine that made tea, cooked eggs and kept the plates warm.
She also secured a £40,000 contract with the Royal Navy for creating a method that protected boat hulls from barnacle growth.
Despite some uncertainty around Guppy’s claims, her achievements and contributions to engineering should not be overlooked.
6. Verena Holmes
Verena Holmes was an English mechanical engineer and multi-field inventor.
During the First World War, Verena began her engineering career by building wooden propellers.
Holmes was the first woman elected to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as an associate member. Still, despite this, it took 20 more years for her to become a full member.
She was also the first woman elected to the Institution of Locomotive Engineers.
Throughout her engineering career, Holmes patented several inventions devised for various applications, from medical treatments to steam locomotives.
In 1940, during the Second World War, Holmes became the advisor to Ernest Bevin on the training of munition workers.
Holmes’s birthday coincides with International Women in Engineering Day, on 23 June.