Emma Dixon: My top three trail-blazing women in STEM

The topic of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is gaining ever-increasing attention – and rightfully so. Girls and young women, for various reasons, are much less likely to study STEM subjects or pursue a career in a related field in comparison to men. Much of the problem is rooted in the past, in a time when women were held back from studying at university or entering the workforce, but still, there are many prevailing issues which can account for the imbalance we see across STEM.

Nowadays I think the media and gender stereotypes are greatly to blame for the imbalance; you only have to google ‘children’s science sets’ to understand what I mean. Explosive and space themed kits bear images of young boys mixing chemicals and perfume and soap sets are clearly marketed towards girls. From a very young age, girls associate certain fields as being ‘boyish’ which is so incredibly damaging to their future education and career prospects.

There is, of course, no problem with a young woman choosing to study history over maths let’s say, as long as that truly is her decision and not the result of years of negative connotations and the portrayal of certain STEM fields. As someone who talks a lot about the issue, I feel passionate about this. The aim should never be to pressure girls and young women into fields they are simply not interested in by making them feel they are contributing to the problem if they don’t pursue the subject. I want to make sure that everyone is equipped to make their own decision about their career - free from societal or peer pressures.

That’s where exposure to role models comes in. By highlighting the inspirational achievements of other women in STEM, girls are much more likely to aspire to follow suit and feel confident that if someone else has done it, they can too! One of the best phrases I’ve heard used to say this is, “you won’t be what you can’t see.” 

So, on that note, here are some notable female transport engineers to inspire the transport engineers of the future.

Dorothee Pullinger

Dorothée Pullinger was an automobile engineer in the early 20th Century. She was born in France in 1894 but when her family moved to the UK she went to school in Loughborough. When she left school at 16, she began work at Arrol-Johnston, an early car manufacturing firm, as a drafter. There, she would have completed extremely detailed technical drawings of engines and mechanics, enabling the firm to develop and produce its vehicles.

During the outbreak of World War I the factory halted production of cars in favour of aeroplanes which were much more useful for the war effort, and Pullinger left the firm to become a supervisor of a munition’s factory in Barrow-in-Furness - a very impressive position for a woman to hold. Towards the end of the war, largely inspired by women’s contribution to the war effort, Pullinger’s father established an Engineering College for women at the Arrol-Johnston firm, where women were supported to complete an apprenticeship in the field. This is where Pullinger returned to after the war – as a director and manager of the newly renamed Galloway Motors automobile manufacturer. In her new position, she insisted that the factory should employ a workforce of mostly women to design and build their cars, and even led a team to produce a car developed specifically for women. This would have been a great amount safer for female drivers than other cars on the market, and this is something still greatly overlooked today!

In 1919 the Women’s Engineering Society was created, with one of the founding members being none other than Dorothée Pullinger. The following year, she was honoured with an MBE for her work during the war, and for overseeing thousands of female employees. During World War II, the Ministry of Production appointed Pullinger to their Industrial Panel – she was the only woman to sit on this panel at the time.

From this, we can see just how much of an impact one woman can have in paving the way for others to follow. Admittedly, Dorothée Pullinger experienced her fair share of privilege – she landed a job at Arrol-Johnston due to her father having a managing position there – but she used her job to provide better support and opportunities for her female workforce. In the process, she was able to create a profile for herself that can now be used to highlight that there is indeed a place for women in transportation engineering.

Mae Jemison

One other example of an inspirational woman in STEM with a role in pioneering transport is Mae Jemison – an American engineer and astronaut. Jemison is most well known for being the first black woman to go into space.

Jemison enjoyed science from a young age and also developed an interest in space through Star Trek. The Apollo missions made her aware of the lack of female astronauts and therefore resulted in driving her ambition forward. At the age of just 16, Jemison successfully enrolled at Stanford University where she studied and graduated with degrees in Chemical Engineering and African and African-American Studies.

After graduation, Jemison worked for a while in the medical field but then at the end of the 80s, inspired by female American astronaut Sally Ride, she applied to NASA’s astronaut training programme. In 1992, after having been successfully selected from thousands, Mae Jemison completed her mission into space.

Mae Jemison has also worked hard to increase accessibility to STEM. She developed science camps for teenagers; the project initially started at various locations across the USA but has since grown to an international scale! She also uses her platform to campaign for quality STEM education and is passionate about supporting students from ethnic minorities to pursue their interest in science.

Shiela Holden

This next female transport engineer may be lesser-known, but she has certainly played a big role in the field in recent years – the smooth-running of the London Olympics owes a lot to her!

Sheila Holden is a Civil Engineer who also holds several local government roles in Sussex. Although her background is in Geography, Holden always had a keen interest in transport and decided to study to become a civil engineer after spending time working within road and traffic management. She has been involved with the Department for Transport where one of her key roles was helping to write guidance on London transport and infrastructure ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games. In 2013 she made history by becoming the first female President of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation.

All three of these tremendous women show just how ground-breaking girls and women can be in the world of STEM, just like you can be too! There are plenty more influential women in our Clever Cogs challenge pack, as well as exciting activities to help you explore the fascinating world of Transportation Engineering. 

Emma Dixon – Assistant Region Chief Commissioner