At the 15th March 1918 meeting of the IMechE a member of the audience rose to read a paper on employment in munitions factories. The speaker was a woman; the first to present a paper before the Institution’s membership.Olive Monkhouse worked for the Home Office and her interest was the type of labour best-suited to female workers, in terms of welfare conditions, working hours and training requirements. The First World War saw an increase in the number of women employed in manufacturing and the discussion which followed the paper shows the two sides of the argument of women in employment: between those who had experienced greater reliability from female workers and those who were frustrated by their workers’ need to attend to their families at short notice.
Verena Holmes, an employee of Ruston & Hornsby, was the first woman to become an Associate Member in 1924. She started her employment superintending the selection, control and welfare of 1,500 female employees. However, her real interest was engineering and she persuaded the directors of the company to let her start as an apprentice in the fitting shops. Holmes gained experience as a turner and apart from a break in her training due to active service in France, she worked her way through a number of roles in the drawing office. In 1919 she was the only woman who was allowed to stay on with the firm. She had experience working on requirements for engines up to 500 BHP. Her interest in innovation and design is reflected in her membership application which lists patents that she took out for valve gears and, unusually, for a deep-sea diving outfit. Holmes sought to improve her understanding of engineering by pursuing a degree which she obtained from the University of London in 1922. Her interest in the promotion of women into engineering was cemented by her involvement in the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society at the end of the First World War. Twenty years after she was accepted as an Associate Member Holmes was finally granted full membership.
Women in engineering did not begin with the War however, as is sometimes assumed. In 1859 Alice Tredwell and her husband travelled to India where he had won a construction contract on the Great India Peninsula Railway. He died within two weeks of arriving. Alice took over responsibility for his part of the contract and worked with Swainson Adamson and George Louis Clowser to complete the Bhore Ghat Incline: the section went through some of the most difficult terrain in the country and required the construction of eight viaducts and over two miles of tunnels. But such women were not recognised by the Institutions and thus did not have an official voice.
And of course, women were increasingly becoming consumers of products created by engineers, sometimes passively (commonly, as passengers in cars) and sometimes actively (powered bikes were popular).