Idaho educators must fight gender discrimination in STEM



Said Ahmed-Zaid, Idaho Statesman religious columnist

In mid-July, one of my graduate students from Boise State University was selected as one of six recipients – three men and three women – who received an exceptional scholarship from the ‘IEEE Power and Energy Society during the PES 2022 General Assembly in Denver.

This prestigious scholarship was created to reward PES members who have chosen an academic path leading to a career in electrical power and energy engineering. Recipients are selected through a competitive, vetted nomination process based on academic achievement, contributions to meeting community and humanitarian needs, and leadership in promoting student engagement within PES.

Engineering is one such field that is still male-dominated, with women making up significantly less than half of practitioners. According to a 2019 report by the United States Census Bureau, female engineers make up only about 13% of the total engineering workforce.

Women made up about 20% of engineering degree holders, but the Harvard Business Review reported that 40% never entered the profession or left.

In today’s column, I would like to pay tribute to Edith Clarke (1883-1959), who was the first woman to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer in the United States and the first female professor of electrical engineering in the country. Clarke was the first woman to present a technical paper at an American Institute of Electrical Engineers conference; the first woman to be recognized by the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society; and the first woman to be named a Fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

She wrote an influential two-volume textbook called “Circuit Analysis of AC Power Systems”, which served to train electrical systems engineers at many universities for many years.

I first heard of Clarke in my electrical engineering class at the University of Illinois. We used the first volume of his famous two-book series in a power class on balanced components. I remember being impressed with the level and rigor of the mathematics used throughout the manual. My teacher spoke highly of her and the matrix transformation that bears her name today.

Clarke was born on February 10, 1883 in Howard County, Maryland. In 1908, she graduated from Vassar College with a degree in mathematics and astronomy. After college, she spent time teaching math and physics at a private school in San Francisco and at Marshall College (now Marshall University) in Huntington, West Virginia. She spent time studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin, but eventually left to become a “computer” at AT&T in 1912.

While at AT&T, she calculated for George Campbell, an American engineer who pioneered the development and application of quantitative mathematical methods to problems in telegraphy and long-distance telephony. At night, Clarke studied electrical engineering at Columbia University.

In 1918, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A year later, she became the first woman to earn a master of science degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, she wanted to work at Westinghouse Electric or General Electric. She found it difficult to find a job in one of these companies because they did not have a vacancy for an engineer.

In 1920, GE offered Clarke a job directing calculations in their turbine engine department, a position like the one she had previously held at AT&T. She was not authorized to do electrical engineering work; she did not earn the same salary as her male counterparts; and she had a lower professional status than men doing the same job.

In 1921 Clarke took a leave of absence from GE to teach at Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey. Upon her return the following year, GE offered her a job as a salaried electrical engineer in the Central Station Engineering Department and became the first professional female engineer in the United States.

Clarke retired from GE in 1945 and joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, where she taught for 10 years until her retirement in 1957. She was considered an authority on power systems electricity and worked on the design and construction of several dams in the west. Clarke was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Clarke’s story highlights the fact that life isn’t always a straight path. It is usually a journey full of twists and turns due to external forces beyond his control. Gender discrimination was real in his time, and it may still be a problem today. There is still a bias against women in male-dominated fields.

However, when given a chance, talent has a way of shattering that glass ceiling faced by women in STEM fields.

When I nominated my student for this award in March, I knew it was a long time because the odds were stacked against her. However, I believed in the fairness of the selection process in our technical society and I believed in its chances. She had qualified for this award. It was my role as an educator and mentor to help level the playing field and let her talent shine.

Said Ahmed-Zaid is a professor of engineering at Boise State University and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from different faiths and perspectives.

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