WEAK REJECTIONS AND STRONG SWE NETWORKS

“Now I’ve heard everything! The excuse of ‘Danger’ for not hiring women in Chemical Engineering is one of the weakest I’ve heard to date,” Ruth Shafer, employment committee chairman, declared in a March 20, 1958, letter. Writing to Dorolyn Lines, Denver Section chairman, Shafer noted, “but that doesn’t help your prospective graduates if they’re faced with it.”

Shafer’s consternation had been prompted by Lines’ query as to whether there were any types of chemical engineering work suited for women, after three female engineering students at the University of Colorado had been repeatedly rebuffed by multiple interviewers on the basis of the supposed danger of the field.

Beyond sharing job opportunities, in the 1950s the employment committee also sought to ease the challenges and discouragements SWE members faced in the hiring market. After conferring with Roslyn Gitlin, a founding member of SWE and editorial assistant at Chemical Engineering magazine, Shafer confirmed in another letter that some companies declined to hire women for pilot plant work, due more to their physical strength and an unwillingness to build women’s restrooms than dangerous working conditions. However, she furnished contact information for several large companies known to hire female chemical engineers, demonstrating the value of the network within SWE to overcome hiring discrimination.

In her March 9, 1958, letter, Dorolyn Lines noted that in addition to being rejected by interviewers, female students were being discouraged by the head of the chemical engineering department at the University of Colorado. “We can understand that some types of chemical equipment is dangerous, and that it would be difficult for a woman to supervise or inspect work around such equipment,” Lines explained. “But surely it is such a broad field that there are points of entry for women.”
A comprehensive handbook created by Ruth Shafer and the New York Section’s employment committee encouraged members to prepare for challenging interview questions, including, “Don’t you find that men resent you in your work?”; “How can you reconcile engineering with ‘Women’s Work’?”; and “Do you think you, as a woman, would direct men in a supervisory capacity?”
The March 1961 issue of the SWE Newsletter reprinted an article from Industrial Relations News, which explained that many male bosses were reluctant to hire women engineers because of their family obligations, absenteeism, and sensitivity to criticism.
While some employers shied away from women engineers, others expressly sought them out, either because women excelled in those kinds of positions or because the jobs paid less than many male engineers would accept. Helpfully, many of the job postings published in the mid-1950s SWE Newsletter included hiring salary ranges, helping members determine whether better opportunities existed for them.

– Troy Eller English, SWE Archivist

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