Women in engineering are hugely under-represented, with 2021 figures indicating that in the UK only 16.5% of engineers are women. International Women in Engineering Day takes place on 23 June and aims to celebrate and promote the incredible work done by women engineers across the world. It plays a vital role in encouraging more young women and girls to take up engineering careers. Hosted by the Women’s Engineering Society, the event is celebrating its 10th year with the theme #MakeSafetySeen.
To celebrate, we are looking back at some of the most famous pioneering women in engineering, and how their work and achievements changed the world.
1. Dame Caroline Harriet Haslett DBE, JP
Dame Caroline Harriet Haslett DBE, JP was an electrical engineer, electricity industry administrator and an advocate of women's rights. After learning engineering skills in World War One, she took an interest in the benefits of electrical power to help women with household chores so that they had time to pursue their own careers in engineering and science. She became the first secretary of the Women's Engineering Society, as well as founding and becoming the editor of its journal, The Woman Engineer.
Haslett co-founded the Electrical Association for Women which helped teach women safety rules about electricity, how to fit a plug and how to put in new wires for lights. She was the only female member of a committee that came up with the BS 1363 safety standard, which covers the three-pin fused plugs and shuttered sockets that we still use in Britain today. She also wrote about the Great Smog of 1952, and how an all-electric house would reduce pollutants caused by burning coal in the home.
She continued to champion women engineers and remained a director of the Electrical Association for Women until 1956, when she retired.
2. Margaret Mary Partridge
Margaret Mary Partridge was an electrical engineer and one of the founding members of the Women’s Engineering Society and the Electrical Association for Women. During World War One she learned practical engineering while working in munitions and was later appointed as the Ministry of Labour Women’s Technical Officer in World War Two, advising factories on the employment of women in munitions. She also set up her own business to install power into rural homes.
Partridge spent her career working with the Women’s Engineering Society to help employ more female apprentices in the field, as well as campaigning to change the International Labour convention which stated that women could not work on their own at night for safety reasons. Her legacy sees her remembered as a pioneer in electricity.
3. Verena Winifred Holmes
Verena Winifred Holmes was an English mechanical engineer and multi-field inventor. She started her engineering career during World War One, building wooden propellors. By the end of the war, she had attended classes at her local college and secured an apprenticeship as a draughtsman at Rushton and Hornsby. She went on to be a co-founder of the Women’s Engineering Society, as well as the first woman member elected to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Locomotive Engineers. In 1946 she founded her own female only engineering firm with Sheila Leather, called ‘Holmes and Leather’.
Holmes spent her life advocating for women in engineering, creating ‘the Women’s Technical Service Register’ allowing young women to apply to become apprentice draughtman and laboratory assistants.
4. Victoria Drummond MBE
Victoria Drummond MBE was the first woman marine engineer in Britain, and the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers. She started her career in engineering as an apprentice at the Northern Garage in Perth, before moving on to the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in Dundee, where she worked in the engine and boiler works. She also joined the Women's Engineering Society.
In a career spanning 40 years, Drummond made 49 voyages working at sea. In World War Two she served as an engineering officer in the British Merchant Navy. During her time on the SS Bonita, the ship was attacked by enemy aircraft. She was later awarded an MBE and Lloyds war medal for bravery and leadership during the attack.
In 2018, Drummond was posthumously inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
5. Beatrice Shilling OBE
Beatrice Shilling OBE was an aeronautical engineer. During the Second World War she designed the RAE-Hobson injection carburettor, a small metal disc that fitted into the Rolls-Royce Merlin aeroplane engine's carburettor helping to limit fuel flow and prevent the engine losing power during manoeuvres. Despite her success, she experienced discrimination for being a woman engineer, including an RAE chief engineer who did not allow women to enter the building, and a law prohibiting women from working at night.
Other achievements in her career include working on the Blue Streak missile, researching how a wet runway can affect breaks, and helping design and build a bobsled for the Royal Air Force's Olympic team. Shilling joined the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and was elected as an Associate Member, giving her the status of a Chartered Engineer. She was also a member of the Women's Engineering Society.
She was awarded an honour as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI in 1949.
Engineering at the University of Sunderland
There are many Engineering courses that we offer, allowing anyone wanting to become an engineer to specialise in the field they want to. Whether you want to work building cars, saving lives through the development of medical equipment, or working towards the advancement of sustainable equipment to help the planet, you can take your first steps and learn skills that will get you where you want to be. This includes:
We also have courses accredited by The Institution of Engineering and Technology, including:
Find the right path for you on our list of Engineering courses.
You can hear what our academics have to say about International Women in Engineering Day on our Round Table Talk.
Published: 23 June 2023