By Ila Ananya
“In reply to your recent communication, I would state that we have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department,” wrote Thorndike Saville, Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina in 1919, ending his letter with a “Yours very truly”.
It was in 1919 when the Congress passed the 19th Amendment in the United States, granting women the right to vote. Saville was responding to two University of Colorado engineering students, Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts, who had written letters to various other US colleges of engineering, asking them if any women students had enrolled. The two young women were trying to start the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects, hoping to get information on any women engineering students who could be its members.
This lovely archive of rather earnest letters stating politely that the colleges “do not permit women to register in the Engineering School”, came to our attention when The Atlantic recently published these rather historic rejection letters to women looking to join engineering courses. Some, as they pointed out, said that while women couldn’t be legally registered in the college, they were free to attend classes, “without definite status as students.”
Of course, if we just pause to think about it, the situation is only slightly different today — how many engineering colleges do you know of that has even a fairly equal number of male and female students, both around the world and in India? There are less than 39 percent of women in STEM education in India, with a much much higher unemployment rate — almost 40 percent of women engineers are unemployed. Having said this, we also know of the kind of barriers within private engineering colleges in India that affect women’s mental health and career opportunities as this survey of colleges in Tamil Nadu found.
If the already small number of women studying in engineering colleges are leaving the field, how much has really changed?