Honoring Women in Engineering

On February 19—during National Engineers Week and just in time to get everyone ready for Women’s History Month—the Office of Alumni Relations treated alumni and others to a presentation at NYU’s King Juan Carlos Center about our female engineers and scientists. The presentation was given by Bern Dibner Library’s archivist, Lindsay Anderberg, and if there’s ever anything you need to know about the long history of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, she has a rich collection of information at her fingertips.

Anderberg’s audience listened raptly as she discussed historic clippings and went on to list some of the illustrious women who have graced the School of Engineering’s halls, including Nobel laureate Gertrude Elion, and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. “As an archivist, one of my most frequent reference questions is about the first women to attend the School of Engineering,” she said, explaining the impetus behind her presentation. “I am fascinated by the history of women in STEM fields, so researching and presenting about the history of women here hardly feels like work."

"I love the stories of women who challenged cultural stereotypes and didn't choose the path of least resistance by giving up on their interests and aptitudes, but rather fought hard to pursue their talents and careers.” She continued, “On a personal note, I grew up in the 1980s and my mother was a scientist, so I never had the feeling that my career options would be limited by my gender. While researching this presentation, I found it almost shocking to read articles from the 1980s and 1990s that document the antagonism some women were still experiencing in STEM fields."

"I think for my generation, and for the young women coming up in high school and college, it's good to learn about this recent history; both to understand the paths paved for us by previous generations of women as well as to inspire us to continually push forward in our intellectual and professional pursuits.”

The school admitted women in the 1940s for the sake of the war effort—the country needed as many engineers as possible—but it did not officially go co-ed until 1958, when Janet Rosenberg, a physics major, enrolled. Rosenberg was pictured cltuching her books that year in the alumni magazine, then unironically called Poly Men. In 1959, when four woman entered, the Polytechnic Reporter, the student newspaper, trumpeted a 400% increase in female students.

Anderberg might quibble at the mention of our female engineers and scientists, because Anna Erdman, the very first female graduate of the school, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1907. It wasn’t until 1946, when Sylvia Waller earned her electrical engineering degree, that the School of Engineering graduated its first female engineer.

Valerie Cabral, Director of Alumni Relations, stressed that history was still being made. Addressing the alumni in attendance, she asserted, “All that our school was, is, and will be is due to you.”

For Anderberg's full presentation, click here.