Hidden Figures: Five Female Engineering Heroes Who Helped Shape the Industry

The gender disparity in the engineering industry is nothing new to us. With just 12.3% of those in the U.K. engineering industry female, it’s clear that there are some big changes that need to be made to diversify the sector.

Despite girls being proven to outperform boys in STEM subjects at both GCSE and A-Level, the percentage of girls progressing to study engineering at higher education is disproportionate.

Research has shown that it is not solely a lack of understanding surrounding the industry that dissuades girls from pursuing careers in engineering, but also an absence of visible female role models in the sector. With children beginning to consider their career options from as young as seven years old, aspirational figures are extremely influential in determining the career paths of young people. We know that it is not a shortage of female role models that the engineering industry is suffering from, but simply a lack of promotion of them and their stories.

With the theme of this year’s International Women in Engineering Day being Engineering Heroes, we thought we’d share stories and celebrate the achievements of five inspirational, yet largely unknown women who have helped shape the engineering industry.  

Sarah Guppy

Born in Birmingham in 1770, Sarah Guppy was an engineer, inventor, campaigner, writer, environmentalist and businesswoman.

A keen engineer, Sarah was the first woman to formally design and patent a bridge, along with a host of other inventions including an exercise bed and egg steamer.

One of Sarah’s greatest achievements is for mentoring Isambard Kingdom Brunel and working with him on the design of his award-winning entry for the creation of the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. Sarah’s involvement in the creation of the bridge has been generally uncommon knowledge up until recently, with her pioneering achievements now formally recognised in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Sarah Guppy
(1770 – 1852)

Hertha Ayrton

Hertha Ayrton was an engineer, mathematician, physicist, inventor, and suffragette. Hertha studied mathematics at Girton College in Cambridge but was not granted a qualification as Cambridge did not award full degrees to women at the time. In 1881, Hertha took a formal exam at the University of London which she passed and was rightfully awarded a Bachelor of Science degree.

One of Hertha’s most notable achievements was the investigation of a hissing noise coming from an electric arc which she figured out was the oxidation of the carbon electrodes. Hertha’s efforts on the electric arc led to her being invited to read her paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers and becoming to first woman to be granted membership of the institution as well as the first woman (and only the second woman to date) to receive a medal for her pioneering research within the field of energy.

Hertha achieved a huge amount in her career, and her presence within the industry led to huge advances for women in STEM, including convincing the British Association for the Advancement of Science to include women on their committees.

Hertha Ayrton
(1854 – 1923)

Laura Annie Willson MBE

Laura Annie Willson MBE was born in 1877 and was an engineer and suffragette. She played a huge part in the Trade Union movement and became Secretary of both the Women’s Labour League and Women’s Social and Political Union as well as being a founding member and elected President of the Women’s Engineering Society.

One of Laura’s greatest successes was setting up a canteen at the factory she worked after realising many women were impoverished and going without food. The canteen was very well received, and in 1917 Laura was awarded an MBE for her contribution to ‘Women’s Work in Munitions’.

After losing her job due to the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, Laura applied her knowledge of the industry to house design, and was inspired to construct modern, affordable housing that contained state-of-the-art gas and electrical appliances. Her venture was a success, and Laura went on to build a selection of housing developments. Later, Laura became the first female member of the Federation of House Builders.

Although not all of Laura’s activism led to immediate action, it sent ripples through the foundations of the industry, helping to drive changes that we can see today.

Laura Annie Willson MBE
(1877 – 1942)

Alice Perry

Having been awarded a scholarship to study at Queen’s College Galway in 1902, Alice chose to study an art degree but later changed to a civil engineering degree after excelling in mathematics. Four years later, Alice graduated with first-class honors and became the first woman in Europe to graduate with a degree in engineering.

Following Alice’s graduation, she was offered a senior postgraduate scholarship but didn’t accept it due to her father’s death a month prior. In 1906, she stepped into her father’s shoes and became a County Surveyor for Galway County Council. Alice excelled in the position and remains the only woman to have ever been a County Surveyor in Ireland.

Although she may not have known it at the time, Alice was responsible for breaking through the glass ceiling and opening engineering up as a viable career option for women.

Alice Perry
(1885 – 1969)

Gertrude Lilian Entwistle

Gertrude Lilian Entwistle was born in Manchester in 1892 and was an electrical engineer by trade.

At the beginning of World War I when there was a shortage of skilled engineers, there was a large surge in recruitment for female engineers to manage shortages. Gertrude broke barriers of prejudice and was the first ever female engineer to work at British Westinghouse as well as the first female student, graduate, and member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Gertrude continued as a specialist electrical engineer for a total of 39 years and became the first British woman to retire from a complete career as a professional engineer.

Gertrude Lilian Entwistle
(1892 – 1961)

What now?

Over the years, millions of women have contributed to advancements within STEM. Though not widely known, the five women we’ve spoken about today have each made an impact on the industry in some way. If we plan to close the gender gap in the engineering industry, we must start at the bottom and educate young girls on the accomplishments of women in engineering and provide them with influential role models.

Maya Desai, from the Royal Academy of Engineering says that to harness the talent pool of women, efforts must be made to change perceptions of engineering as a career and facilitate access to engineering education. UCL have already launched an initiative following this idea called the 50:50 Engineering Engagement strategy; a programme aimed at demystifying the engineering industry and inspiring young people to get involved in authentic engineering projects. The strategy pairs engineering students with pupils, providing them with relatable role models from all backgrounds. The programme has seen girls’ participation results increase from 19% to 63% in under a year.

Feeling inspired? If you’d like career advice or want to learn more about the opportunities available within engineering, get in touch with our Director, Alan Furley, who has 20 years of recruitment experience along with experience working with young engineers through Founders4Schools and several university mentoring programmes. We’d love to help you start your journey to becoming an engineering hero or creating a business full of them!