As the number of women elected to the National Academy of Engineering has increased over the years, so has their potential to shape the future of engineering.

By CV Garcia, SWE Research Intern and Ph.D. Candidate

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, Ph.D., first woman member of the NAE. CREDIT: Smithsonian libraries and archives

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) was established in 1964 to promote the engineering profession and assemble the expertise and insight of prominent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government. Being elected as a member of the academy is an honor that symbolizes exceptional contributions to the engineering field and profession. NAE membership recognizes those who have significantly contributed to engineering research or practice, as well as those who have pioneered emerging technologies, made substantial advancements in traditional engineering fields, or introduced innovative approaches to engineering education.

Source: National Academy of Engineering

One such person was Lillian Gilbreth, Ph.D., named SWE’s first honorary member in 1951 and, in 1965, the first woman member of the NAE. A longtime faculty member at Purdue University, Dr. Gilbreth was the first woman to teach in the engineering school. The NAE recognized her for her contributions in the fields of management psychology and efficiency improvement.

Since the mid-1960s, the number of women elected over the years has grown significantly (see Figure 1).

Today, the NAE has close to 2,700 living members, which includes 320 women from the United States and overseas. In the 2023 election, the NAE welcomed 124 members, of whom 21% were women. The three engineering disciplines with the most women members include computer science and engineering, bioengineering, and chemical engineering. Refer to Figure 2 for a breakdown of the number of women members in each discipline.

*The NAE did not specify the primary section or discipline of three members: Beatrice Hicks, P.E.; Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, Ph.D.; and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, Ph.D. Note that all three women were SWE members. Hicks served as SWE’s first president; Dr. Hopper received the Achievement Award in 1964; and Dr. Gilbreth was named SWE’s first honorary member. Source: National Academy of Engineering

NAE members hold a significant role in shaping the engineering profession. They actively participate in initiatives that can influence engineering policy, research priorities, and the public perception of engineering. Women members contribute a diverse range of ideas to those initiatives, provide solutions to complex problems, and bring attention to critical social and ethical issues. Women’s membership in the NAE also ensures that the accomplishments and contributions of women in engineering are recognized at the highest levels. This visibility, in turn, promotes gender equity and helps to address the underrepresentation of women in engineering disciplines. View updated statistics on women NAE members at swe.org/research/2023/national-academy-of-engineering/.

1. National Academy of Engineering (n.d.). Lillian Moller Gilbreth – NAE election, 1965. nae.edu/249711/LILLIAN-MOLLER-GILBRETH-NAE-election-1965

2. National Academy of Engineering (n.d.). Members Directory. nae.edu/20412/MemberDirectory

3. National Academy of Engineering (2023, February, 07). National Academy of Engineering Elects 106 Members and 18 International Members. nae.edu/289843/NAENewClass2023

4. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2008-1924.

5. Lillian Moller Gilbreth – Copyright information. www.si.edu/object/lillian-moller-gilbreth-1878-1972-undated:siris_arc_308453

Editor’s note: Please visit the SWE research site for the latest studies and statistics on women in engineering and STEM: swe.org/research.