Electrifying Women: Understanding the Long History of Women in Engineering.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of PRHS


This project promotes public awareness of women's historical participation in engineering so as to support the UK's Women's Engineering Society (WES) centenary commemorations in 2019. We aim especially to support the WES centenary programme theme of 'Remembering the Past'.

The WES centenary comes at a time when recruitment of women to engineering positions in the UK is exceptionally challenging, with women only constituting 11% of UK engineers, compared to 47% on average for other professions, and associated challenges in diversity. This situation is exacerbated by the remarkably resilient - yet inaccurate view - that women's place in engineering has no real historically-embedded position. So like WES we will deploy stories of women's past work in engineering to help normalise the expectation that women today can also become professional engineers for a full career, working against unhelpful myths that women have been systematically excluded from engineering in the past.

Our project will complement WES's centenary activities by focusing upon women's participation in engineering well prior to WES's foundation, and the long-term ramifications thereof into the WES era, in activities that draw upon the PI's AHRB/AHRC supported outputs Domesticating Electricity (2008), and co-authored Patently Contestable (2013). We thus aim to
i) enhance public understanding of women active in British engineering before WES's foundation in 1919, and indeed before World War 1
ii)show how WES's role in promoting women in engineering drew significantly upon that 'pre-history'
iii) highlight how women's historic work in engineering becomes more visible if we reject individualist myths that it was accomplished only by individual (male) heroes
iv) show the value of longer term historical evidence in addressing the current concern about UK women's comparatively low participation rate in engineering: in redeeming this situation there is in fact a long tradition of women's participation to build upon, rather than any new ground to break.

Our primary activity will be a series of lectures across the UK followed by discussion and with audiences. This will raise awareness of women working in pre-First World War engineering using stories from Domesticating Electricity's exploration of spousal support roles, especially Alice Gordon, contrasted with Caroline Haslett as an example of an independent engineer. These lectures will take place in museums, libraries, universities, and Heritage Open Days.

Our second major activity will be to create an 'Electrifying Women' blog and social media profile which will be at the heart of a social media campaign run by project members. Blog posts will highlight both particular cameos of other women working in electrical engineering before WES

Our third activity, inspired by our previous collaboration with the IET and WES, is to organise with a professional Wikimedian (Alice White) dedicated wikithons to create, enhance and promote pages for the women involved in engineering before the rise of the Women's Engineering Society.

Our fourth activity is to run creative writing sessions as follow-up events for lectures, with audiences enabled thereby to explore fresh ways of bringing to life the rarely documented work of engineering spouses e.g. through fictional diaries that extrapolate from extant fragmentary sources.

Our fifth activity is to set up a project website of resources and links to help meet all the objectives outlined above to facilitate further engagement in creative activities that can promote better historical understanding among a wide-range of audiences both inside academia and in the wider public sphere.

Our sixth activity will be to support a group of Theatre and Performance Students at the University of Leeds in producing a musical theatre production titled 'Electrifying Women', devised using our project materials. A recording of the performance will be shared on Youtube.

Planned Impact

The Women's Engineering Society: this primary beneficiary of the project will benefit from activities that will support their centenary enterprise next year of promoting greater awareness of women's often misunderstood and underestimated historical contributions in engineering by publicizing how their society's history is part of a yet bigger long-term picture of women's resilient participation. Following careful discussions of an appropriate division of labour, our public engagement activities cover a broader time period and range of issues than WES's own centenary campaign, and a complement of mostly non-WES historical characters. Moreover we aim to reach audiences complementary to WES's own since their activities will mostly operate through engineering communities and affiliated industries.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives: this major project partner will benefit from the greater publicity given to its WES-related holdings: these include the WES institutional archives housed by the IET Archives, especially the Caroline Haslett papers and the digitized journal The Woman Engineer. The lectures and social media communications will draw upon IET resources, indicating to audiences how they might be further explored, and supply materials for Wikithons and creative writing activities.

Engineering history groups e.g. the Newcomen Society: these will benefit from enhanced historical narratives that introduces more women into their lectures, aiming for greater inclusivity in activities that are traditionally all-male in focus and audience.

Athena Swan: initiatives in the engineering profession, especially female engineering students will benefit by receiving a broader account of women's position in the profession, thus supporting efforts to recruit and retain women as long-term participants - against the challenging background of the 'leaky pipeline' which sees many younger women leaving the profession soon after entering it.

Wikimedia: we aim significantly to improve female representation in Wikipedia's STEM pages (currently a priority for Wikipedia) both for important non-WES individuals and for more collective entries on women engineers as a group. The project website will make available resources on women in engineering that will enhance the opportunities for participation in Wikithons by those not near archives or libraries.

Museums and Libraries: the activities organised with these institutions will broader the range of their public activities, offering a fresh angle on STEM that can drawn in audiences less traditionally interested. Also, subject to the Museum's and libraries own plans, there will be greater scope for more exhibition and communal activities (e.g. creative writing) that enable Museum and Library collections to be used and exhibited in new ways.

Local History groups: given the project's plans to bring in local case studies e.g. Caroline Haslett in Crawley and Lady Katharine Parsons in Newcastle, we will draw upon WES records to encourage local investigations of women in engineering in the pre-WW1, First World War and interwar years.

Heritage Open Days: we will offer this umbrella organisation a range of activities to appeal to a broad range of constituencies, enhancing participation in STEM history, especially via lecture, Wikithons and creative writing. For example, we can enhance the inclusivity of their narratives by engaging stories of how women' work in engineering mattered in varying ways before, during and after the First Word War.

Creative Writing Groups: the historical evidence of women's collaborative role in engineering can serve as a new source of stimulus for imaginative recreations and extrapolations of overlooked women's technology stories.

Broader general public: these will have access to public lectures, project web resources, and enhanced Wikipedia pages for a much better general understanding of women's historical role in engineering.


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