International Women in Engineering Day is a global celebration of women past, present and future. As was the case in many professions, female pioneers in mechanical engineering had to work hard to break into a male dominated profession.
The issue of women members was first raised in the Institution of Automobile Engineers (IAE) in May 1907. Miss Cleone de Heveningham Benest (1880-1963) wrote to find out whether women could be admitted as Graduate Members. In 1909 she was noted in the press as being the first woman to drive a motor omnibus in England and the only woman to take a motor engineering examination in London. The Woman Engineer, 1920, states that she was elected as an Associate Member of the IAE but there is no evidence in the records of this. It is accepted that she attended IAE meetings. But then Benest is a hard character to pin down, being also known as Miss C Griff, hardly anything is known of her after 1927.
It was during the First World War that many women had their first experience of engineering work; although women did work in factories before this, it was largely in operating machinery rather than in building or maintaining it. Women were trained in engineering work under the policy of dilution; women carried out many tasks that had previously been done by skilled men. By 1918 almost 1 million women were working in engineering and munitions. Although it was shown that trained women performed extremely well, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced women to give up their jobs to men returning from military service. Unions such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) were against female engineers, viewing them as competition for their members; the forced loss of women’s jobs was part of the terms of an ASE negotiated Government agreement.
However, 1919 also saw the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. This specifically stated that sex or marital status could not be a bar to admission to any incorporated society and forbade Universities from regulating the admission of women. This gave women some scope for progress. Soon after the IAE elected Dorothée Pullinger (1894-1986) as its first female Member. Although she initially rejected their offer of Associate Member, she accepted it in January 1921. (Pullinger is the first women who can be verified as a member but perhaps Benest was first!)
Early in 1920 the Council of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) sought legal advice on the issue. The Institution’s solicitor was uncompromising, he replied that the Act removed the disqualification of all women – the words ‘he, him and his’ had previously been used to restrict membership, this now had to read ‘he or she’. He added that all other qualifications required for membership remained unchanged, a woman applicant for membership would have to meet the same technical and educational standards as male applicants. It was presumably with this advice in mind that IMechE Minutes contain a footnote stating that the decision in December 1920 not to elect Miss Verena Holmes as a member ‘was made strictly on the merits of the case, and without prejudice on account of the candidate’s sex.’ No further mention of women becoming members occurs in the minutes until Holmes was elected as an Associate Member in 1924.
Both Pullinger and Holmes were active members of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). It was formed in 1919 by women who wanted to resist the pressure to leave engineering following the War and to promote engineering as a suitable profession for women. WES was active throughout the inter-war years, and was instrumental in mobilizing large numbers of women to enter engineering during the Second World War. It was able to take steps to ensure that women engineers were not subject to the same post-war pressures after 1945.
Despite the important work carried out by these pioneers (amongst others) and organizations such as WES, there is still a long way to go to improve the representation of women in mechanical engineering. Out of 133 IMechE Presidents, 3 have been women and all within the last 21 years (the first being 73 years after Holmes was elected to membership). According to Engineering UK 2018, women make up 12% of those working in core and related engineering roles – clearly there is still some way to go until we can claim parity.