Georgia Tech Celebrates 50 Years of Women

When Elizabeth Herndon and Diane Michel strode onto the Georgia Tech campus in 1952 as the first female students, they had no idea of the events they would set in motion.

"To think I thought I wouldn't be noticed, that I'd just sneak in," Herndon said with a laugh.

Not only were they noticed, but their numbers quickly grew. In just 50 years, Tech has gone from having just two women students to producing more female engineers than any other university in the country.

"Other schools have been admitting females longer than Georgia Tech, but I don't think they've made the concerted effort that Tech has," said Mary Frank Fox, professor in Tech's Ivan Allen College and co-director of the Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology.

For the 2002-03 fall semester, 2,045 women were enrolled as engineering majors at Tech. That's compared to 1,773 at the University of Michigan and 1,285 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MIT began admitting female students in 1883, five years before Tech, opened its doors as the Georgia School of Technology. Despite years of lobbying by Ella Van Leer, her husband, Georgia Tech President Blake Van Leer, and longtime Tech Librarian Dorothy Crosland, the Board of Regents didn't allow Tech to admit female students until the 1952-53 academic year, and even then, women could only major in those programs not offered at other university system schools. This meant women could enroll in the engineering programs, architecture programs and the master's degree in applied mathematics. It wasn't until 1968 that the Regents voted to allow women to enroll in all programs at Tech.

"We didn't go there to change Georgia Tech. We went there for an education," explained Shirley Mewborn, one of two first women students to get a degree from Tech and the first female president of the Alumni Association.

But whether they meant to or not, these first women students did change Tech and subsequently, engineering. Their presence set in motion a complete overhaul of science and technology education in Georgia and opened the doors for more women to enter the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and engineering.

The diversity of backgrounds and ideas that women students and faculty brought have been extremely important to the quality of education at Tech, said Sue Rosser, dean of the Ivan Allen College and Tech's first female academic dean. "Women faculty and students often have a different perspective on problems. They often are much more interested in the social applications that a particular technology will have. Given all the amazing technological problems that need to be solved, we need to have people with as much creativity, with as many different backgrounds, as possible, working on these solutions," said Rosser.

In addition, female students at Tech have higher GPA's and better retention and graduation rates than their male counterparts.

Women in Engineering

Part of Tech's success in recruiting women into engineering can be chalked up to its Women in Engineering program (WIE), currently run by civil and environmental engineering professor Mimi Philobos. WIE seeks to recruit female engineers and provide them opportunities for professional growth and development. One program within WIE, the Technology, Engineering and Computing Camp, targets girls as early as middle school.

"Some might argue that women don't pursue careers in math and science because they aren't interested, but studies indicate that girls are more interested in math and science in elementary school. Something happens when they go to middle school," said Philobos.

At the camp, the girls get an introduction to computer science. They also get to design and program a robot and design aerospace projects like rockets and hot air balloons.

"We have a technological society, and we have a shortage of women in the tech professions. If we want to be competitive, we cannot afford to overlook the talents of half of our population," said Philobos.

Tech's Center for the Study of Women in Science and Technology is another way the Institute is meeting the needs of women both on and off campus. The center offers a minor in gender studies as well as programs aimed at female students who are entering fields in science and technology.

ADVANCE-ing Toward the Future

A university also has to meet the needs of the female faculty. Through the ADVANCE program, sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Tech is working to increase the representation of women both in academia and in industry. Jane Ammons is one of four ADVANCE professors and has been at Tech since she came here as a student in 1976. As one of Tech's first female professors of engineering, she's seen firsthand how the Institute has changed through the years from a place that merely tolerated female faculty to a university that actively seeks to recruit and advance them. One of her fondest memories, she said, is fighting to get a woman's restroom put in her academic building in the late 1970's.

"I jumped into the fray with an industrial engineering study based on the numbers of males and females in the building. Making my logical engineering arguments, I approached key administrators at Tech, with no luck," she said.

Knowing a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice could withhold all federal funding to Tech, she made one last stop at the vice president's office.

"Instead of simply changing the sign on the door, which was my request, he found the money to renovate the building and add a larger women's restroom. For the remainder of our time in that building, the women secretaries and students threatened to put up a plaque in the bathroom that said, 'When using this room, think of Jane Ammons.'"

As an ADVANCE professor, Ammons is still working to make the campus more accommodating to female faculty and students. So far, ADVANCE has been instrumental in convincing the administration to extend the tenure clock for faculty who have a new baby, adopt a child or take leave to care for a sick relative. Ammons and the other ADVANCE professors also mentor younger faculty members and actively seek out ways to promote opportunities for women.

"It's important for students, faculty and staff as well as the administration to see women in leadership positions," explained Rosser. "And given that Georgia Tech students are always leaders when they get out into the workplace, I expect that women who have graduated from Tech will assume leadership positions and make an impact on the world."

The Next 50 Years

As a result of Tech's commitment to women, Ammons said, "I don't think that female students today spend as much time worrying about the culture of Tech affecting women as much as they just have worries that regular students have."

But Tech still has much to do, said Rosser. "We're working to attract more women to enroll. Overall, we've had about 28-29 percent women for about a decade. We're looking at subtle changes in the curriculum because research shows that women are attracted to science and engineering when they can see its social usefulness. A Ph.D. program in the College of Computing on human-computer interaction is one of the changes Tech is looking at," she said.

Whatever changes Tech makes over the next 50 years, Rosser said, they will all meet the same high standards the women of the past 50 years have worked so hard to meet. "The women of today owe the women of the past 50 years a tremendous debt, not only to the women students but to the women faculty."

"We were just students. We weren't looking behind or ahead. We were just looking to get out, if you will," explained Mewborn. Today, I see the accomplishments of so many of our women students and what they have meant to science and technology. I'm just so happy to see the contributions that women have made. I guess had we not started this, then it wouldn't have happened. So, that makes me very proud."

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