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Gender at Work

Rejection letters to female engineers in 1919 show how far women have come

Women engineers often drop out of the field even before they graduate college — to the tune of 40% of female engineering majors dropping out of the industry —  but the discouragements of today were once brutally direct rejections telling women in science that they’d never amount to anything.

To honor its founding this month, the Society of Women Engineers released historic academic rejection letters U.S. women engineers got to show how far women engineers have come and how far they still need to go to be accepted.

Soft rejection versus the hard kind is just as discouraging

In 1919, Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts wanted to test academic assumptions and make their own society of women engineers. That year, they sent letters to every engineering department they could find to find out their policies on women joining, and if any women had taken their classes.

What the two hopeful engineering students got were rejections from men in power that ranged from firmly dismissive to kindly dismissive.

This type of stigmatization and dismissal persists to this day. Engineering remains a male-dominated field. Women are only 13% of the engineering workforce. Far too many aspiring female engineers never enter the job market. 40% of women engineers quit the field or never use their degree.

We ‘do not expect to have in the near future, any women students’

Some rejections read like a door firmly shut in one’s face.

“Dear Madam,” Thorndike Saville, a University of North Carolina professor, told Melton. “We have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department.”

Other professors thought not enough women would be interested.

“You ask for information or suggestions. I have only this say, that I suspect the number of women who have undertaken general engineering courses is so few that you will hardly be able to form an organization,” William Raymond, a dean at the State University of Iowa, wrote in his dismissal.

But at least he noted that his was not the only opinion that mattered: “However, I may be mistaken,” he concluded.

Other academic officials recognized that times were changing, but they also recognized that they wouldn’t be the pioneers holding the door open.

“Up to the present, women students have not been admitted to GA Tech. Yesterday, the City of Atlanta conferred suffrage on women in City Affairs, so no knowing what may happen!” J.S. Boon, a mechanical engineering professor told Melton.

In other, words, best of luck, but you’ll get no help from me.

The most positive response came from Helen Smith, a female engineering student at the University of Michigan who told Melton and Counts that the women there had formed their own society, T-Square, with the university’s approval.

Smith said her and the rest of T-Square were “pleased to hear from women studying the same things in Colorado.” Smith ended up giving the two prospective students advice on how to start their own society, which never got off the ground.

The story still has a good ending:  Melton and Counts, at least, persevered in spite of all the men telling them ‘no.’

Melton became the only female graduate in her civil engineering class at the University of Colorado, and later went on to take an engineering job at the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. Counts became the first women to graduate with an electrical engineering degree in Colorado, which she put to use in her job at the Rural Electrification Administration. Thirty years later, Counts became one of the founding members of the Society of Women Engineers.