Tech Hits Mark of 60 Years as Co-ed Campus

When talking about Georgia Tech, “the ratio” often comes up. It’s commonly known that when it comes to demographics, women are outnumbered. But this year, Tech celebrates the 60th anniversary of a co-ed campus and its role as the number one producer of women engineers in the country. 

Alpha Xi Delta Women, 1956
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Women of Alpha Xi Delta sing together in 1956, two years after being chartered as the first sorority on campus. Image courtesy of Georgia Tech Living History Program.

In 1952, Diane Michel and Elizabeth Cofer Herndon enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In the six decades since Michel and Herndon arrived, women at Tech have transformed and improved the Institute in classrooms, labs, athletics and international prestige.

This year’s freshman class set a record for being 35 percent female, with the overall student female population at 30 percent. Women on campus find solidarity in groups such as Women in Engineering, Women in Computing, the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Women in Business, the Faculty Women’s Club and Greek letter organizations. The Institute’s Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology threads its focus through an academic minor and a living-learning housing community.

When Karen Feigh came to Tech as an undergraduate in 1997, there was one female professor in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering from which she earned her bachelor’s degree. Now an associate professor in the School herself, she is one of three women on the aerospace faculty – a 300 percent increase, but a reflection of the gains still possible.

“In the past five years I’ve been a faculty member, the number and quality of women being hired on campus has been incredibly high,” Feigh said. That trend, she believes, will be key to continued increases in female faculty and students. Current women in leadership roles include School of Interactive Computing Chair Annie Antón, H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering Chair Jane Ammons, Director of the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship Terry Blum and Dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts Jacqueline Royster. In 2011, Archie Ervin assumed the new role of Vice President for Institute Diversity to keep the goal of a diverse, high-achieving campus at the top of the Institute’s strategic efforts.

Cassie Mitchell, a research engineer in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, not only earned her PhD from the Institute in 2009 and researches solutions for neurological injury and disease, but also competed in this year’s London Paralympic Games as part of the U.S. Track and Field team. She was one of three female Jackets to participate in the 2012 games.

In the past eight years, women have out-earned men in prestigious fellowships, including Andrea Barrett’s 2010 Hertz Fellowship, lauded as a pinnacle honor for graduate students and valued at nearly $250,000.

Young alumnae also pursue entrepreneurship, founding companies such as Techturized, a startup celebrating African American women with natural hair, which was created by Candace Mitchell.

Three women have represented Tech not only on an international stage, but an interplanetary one: alumnae Nancy “Jan” Davis, Sandra Magnus and Susan Still have spent a cumulative 205 days in space serving NASA missions. 

Perhaps because of the immense historical accomplishments of Tech women, Feigh has never felt out of place as a woman.

“I came back as a grad student and then a faculty member because I felt like I found my people. The overriding passion in our lives was research, questions, knowledge, engineering, the ability to be highly analytical; the fact that I’m a woman has always been secondary.” It helps that women at Tech leave a legacy for each other – Feigh is the proud inheritor of regalia that once belonged to Helen Grenga, the first full tenured female engineering professor and former director of the office of graduate studies and research.

In 1998, Tech opened its Women’s Resource Center and began growing its female leaders annually with the Women’s Leadership Conference. This year’s conference will be Nov. 2-3 and is open to all. Learn more at gtwlc.com.