Today is International Women’s Day, where we recognise the struggles, contributions and achievements of women all over the world. Although the occasion has a longer history, the UN recognised it as an official event in 1975 to raise awareness around gender equality. Today, the date is marked by millions of marches and events all over the world.
To mark the occasion, we want to share the stories of inspirational female engineers from history and the present day. Although the number of women working in engineering is steadily increasing, there is still a big disparity in the industry. According to the Women’s Engineering Society, just 14.5% of engineers in the UK are women – but this represents a 25.7% increase since 2016.
So, to inspire young female engineers in the making, here are six women who made or are making a difference in the field. With role models like these, we can work together to make the sector more equal and more dynamic.
Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854 – 1923)
Hertha Marks Ayrton was a prolific inventor, physicist, mathematician and dedicated suffragette at the turn of the 19th century. Perhaps her most famous invention was the Ayrton anti-gas fan, which saved lives in the trenches of World War I by dispersing mustard gas. In 1889, she was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE).
Alice H. Parker (1885 – unknown)
Alice H. Parker was an American engineer credited with the invention of the gas furnace. At a time when most homes were heated with wood-burning stoves, this invention would completely transform the way we keep our homes warm. With far less pollution, almost no smell and the ability to control temperature, Parker’s gas furnace would be one of the most influential HVAC inventions of all time.
Dr Margaret Fishenden (1889 – 1977)
Dr Margaret Fishenden was a researcher at Imperial College London. She conducted pioneering research into combustion and heat transfer, which contributed to the refinement of aircraft gas turbines, flamethrowers and airfield gas burners. Today, she lends her name to the Margaret Fishenden Centenary Memorial Prize, which is awarded to an outstanding PhD thesis every year.
Danielle Merfeld (1980 – present)
Danielle Merfeld is the president and CTO of General Electric’s renewable energy division. With a doctorate in electrical engineering from Northwestern University, Merfeld’s first leadership role at the energy giant began with their solar division. Now, she spearheads technical efforts to develop more renewable energy solutions, including onshore and offshore wind farms, utility-scale solar power plants, grid solutions and hybrid renewable options.
Gwynne Shotwell (1964 – present)
Gwynne Shotwell is the president and COO of Elon Musk’s aerospace project SpaceX. She made a significant contribution to the design of reusable rockets, which are a crucial part of the company’s plan for commercialisation. Her first major success at SpaceX was when she brokered a deal between the company and NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Today, she’s responsible for day-to-day operations and for managing customer and strategic relations.
Keep inspiring women in engineering
This is but a handful of women who have made waves in engineering. With the right encouragement, we’ll see plenty more inspiring female engineers in the future. No matter the field – renewables, construction, mechanical engineering, or even space exploration – there is a path in engineering to inspire young women to make a difference. You can learn more about making tracks into a career in engineering here.