Where Are All The Women Engineers?

When we started digging into the archives for our Smeaton300 research it quickly became apparent that in the early days of engineering, science and astronomy there were very few women’s voices. Or at least there were very few that were having their words, theories and accomplishments published!

However, if you take the time to look past the well recited headlines you’ll find some amazing women figures from the past to the present day who are finally making it into the history books! Read on for some great stories and achievements by women in engineering, science and astronomy.

Mariam al-Asturlabi of Syria was an astronomer and maker of astrolabes in the 10th Century. Astrolabes (known as ‘star holders’) observe the positions of the sun and stars as well as estimating one’s latitude and were used for timekeeping, astronomy, and navigation. Today GPS, space science, and navigation equipment are still based on astrolabe theories. The main-belt asteroid 7060 Al-‘Ijliya was named in Mariam’s honor in 1990.

Astrolabe / Khalili Collections / Wikimedia

Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt a Pharaoh of Egypt commissioned hundreds of construction projects during her reign, including the Mortuary Temple which is considered a masterpiece.

Hertha Marks Ayrton was a British mathematician, engineer and physicist who invented a fan to disperse poisonous gases in WWI, she wrote papers on water and sand ripples and was both a suffragette and organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was the first women to be nominated for membership to the Royal Society but she was refused because she was a woman.

Hertha Ayrton / Wikimedia

Sarah Boone showed that engineering is everywhere when she invented the collapsible ironing board and through it became one of the first African American women to be awarded a US Patent in 1892.

Emily Warren Roebling spent 11 years supervising the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which she took over from her husband when he became ill. The bridge opened in 1883 and stands to this day.

Brooklyn Bridge / Ankur Agrawal / Wikimedia

Thankfully as we write this, in 2023, things are changing. There is still a substantial way to go to encourage more girls and women into studying STEM subjects but there are now lots of amazing women engineers and scientists to be role models for the next generation. Here are a few of the many present day women who have inspired us on our Smeaton journey.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock – space scientist and engineer. Presenter of BBC Sky At Night, author of astronomy books for children and adults and in 2023 Mattel brought out a Barbie Doll of Maggie to promote women in STEM. It’s gone straight onto our Christmas present list!

Roma Agrawal – Engineer and author. Roma worked on London’s pointiest building The Shard. Surely the feeling of “I helped build that” never wears off. Roma’s children’s book How Was That Built joined our reading pile as soon as it was published.

Vinita Marwaha Madill – Space Engineer and Women in STEM advocate. Vinita has worked for the European Space Agency and worked on a spacesuit to stop astronauts bodies from expanding in zero gravity!

Hannah Wood – Engineer at Leeds City Council. We only met Hannah recently and already she is rolling up her high vis sleeves to help Leeds Industrial Museum with their part of the Smeaton300 programme later this year. What’s more, half of Hannah’s team are women!

And finally, our lead image for this post is of Milly Hennayake, Civil Engineer with Arup based here in Leeds!

We will no doubt revisit highlighting more fantastic women engineers but for now we are grateful to all the pioneers past and present.

Thank you to Joe Williams and Jordan Keighley of Heritage Corner for sharing their historical research and also to all the women engineers and historians of twitter who amplify online the voices of women in STEM including Electrifying Women, The Women’s Engineering Society, Dr Nina Baker, Finding Ada, The WISE Campaign and many more.