Past, Present, and Future of Women at Mines

Since Mines’ founding in 1874, women have had a lasting impact on this campus. Many noteworthy women have graduated from this school. Today, Mines boasts a female population active in all sorts of roles across campus, in all ages and fields of study.

In the first 75 years of Mines’ history, only four women graduated with degrees. Florence Caldwell graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1898; Grace McDermut with an Engineer of Mines degree in 1903; Ninetta Davis with an Engineer of Mines degree in 1920; and Jackie Borthick graduated with a petroleum-refining engineering degree in 1949.

Florence Caldwell is celebrated as the first woman to receive a professional degree from Mines. She graduated at age 30 in 1898 with a degree in civil engineering, along with two previous degrees from Ohio Wesleyan University and the Cleveland Institute of Art. Today she is honored through the Undergraduate Florence Caldwell Achievement Scholarship, which is awarded to Colorado residents. McDermut and Davis also have scholarships in their names.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the population of women at Mines began to grow. An article in Life Magazine in 1952 spotlighted Nancy Easley, the single female student among 913 male students, who attended Mines to study geology. By the 1960s, the female presence at Mines began expanding.

“In 1964 we had six women at Mines,” stated Stephanie Berry, director of the Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (WISEM) program on campus. “That was the biggest group in the school’s history.” Throughout the end of the 20th century to today, women at Mines have become an integral part of the school. Women began pursuing postgraduate degrees in the 1970s, and the first sorority was established in 1974. The Society of Women Engineers began in 1980 with nine members and has since grown to become the largest chapter in the nation. Additionally, over half of leadership roles on campus are held by women.

“The women that come here become so involved,” Berry articulated. “They are having a giant impact on the culture.” The female population at Mines continues to grow.

“The biggest change for women on campus has been the enrollment of women,” said Berry. “Our incoming freshman class was just over 31 percent women.”

Berry is right to be excited about these numbers. In the past few years the number of women attending Mines has been on the rise. A recent study showed that on average, only about 17% of all engineering students are women. That may not seem like a lot, but it is a massive improvement. Just 50 years ago, in the early 1960’s, fewer than 1% of engineering school attendees were women. This number spiked in the 1970’s due to a decrease in the amount of formal educational discrimination in engineering programs.

Before this time, women who applied to these programs were considered generally inferior to men, and were overwhelmingly rejected. During the 1970’s, however, women who applied to engineering schools began to be regularly accepted. Though not many women applied initially, a trend was already beginning. Since then, the numbers have been steadily increasing.

While Mines’ numbers can still seem a little dismal, it is important to consider how they compare to other STEM and engineering programs specifically. For instance, although Harvard has 52.8% women overall, it has only 32.2% women in its undergraduate engineering college. Stanford, similarly, has 47.6% women overall but only 32.8% women enrolled in their undergraduate engineering program. A similarly structured school, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, has only 22% women. Even CU Boulder has 44.3% women overall, but only 28% women in its engineering program.

The female population of faculty and researchers is growing as well, making up 20.3% of the total researcher population as of 2015.

“It’s growth, which is good, but at this rate it’ll be sixty years before we reach parity,” said Dr. Tracy Camp, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. According to Dr. Camp, what research faculty lacks, the teaching faculty has.

“47 percent of our teaching faculty are women,” stated Camp. “Our overall percent of women [in faculty] is 27.6 percent.” This is almost on par with the current undergraduate female population, which currently sits at 27.9%.

Camp is also the mind behind a program for elementary school-age girls on campus, called Discovering Technology. The innovative program meets once a month over both spring and fall semesters, and each month the girls learn about a different field of science and engineering. The program is available to 3rd to 6th grade girls, and each semester has a unique lesson plan that spans all four years of enrollment. Its growing popularity has caused Camp and other directors of the program to plan to implement weekly classes for middle and high school-age girls as well. Female students teach girls about these topics.

“The role model impact of the Mines women who run this program is just huge,” explained Camp. “It should help bring more women into science and engineering.”

Mines’ female population has a long way to go to reach parity, but getting girls and women interested in science and engineering is the first step. Women at Mines are and have always been at the forefront of science and engineering, and will continue to be as they become some of the best researchers, innovators, and leaders in the world.

Above: Florence Caldwell. Photo courtesy Colorado School of Mines.

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