‘Why Would a Nice Girl Like You Want to Work in a Dirty Business Like This?’

Women found many opportunities in engineering during the Second World War, but their prospects diminished afterward as U.S. servicemen returned to the country and the workforce. In the postwar years, women engineers had to hustle hard to find jobs in an employment climate summed up in a March 1961 SWE Newsletter headline as, “81% of Male Bosses Won’t Hire Gal Engineers.”

To help members succeed in such an environment, in the late 1950s SWE’s employment committee advised them to prepare for such interview questions as, “How can you reconcile engineering with ‘Women’s work?’” For some, simply landing an interview was a struggle. In her 2010 SWE oral history interview, Society Past President Roberta Gleiter, F.SWE, recalled having to replace her first name with just an initial on her resume to receive any interviews in 1960. Even then, multiple interviewers shunned her when they discovered her gender at the interview, leading her to leave the workforce for 20 years.

The employment climate changed once again in women engineers’ favor in the early 1970s following revisions to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal affirmative action policies requiring eligible employers and federal contractors to make good-faith efforts to hire qualified women. After decades of being unwelcome, SWE members now had the latitude to reject employers with sexist attitudes. In her 2016 SWE oral history interview, Society Past President Penny Wirsing, F.SWE, recalled an interviewer asking her in the early 1980s, “‘Now why would a nice girl like you want to work in a dirty business like this?’ And I just thought, ‘You’re right. I don’t want to work for you.’”

It was not uncommon for resumes in the 1950s and 1960s to include a job seeker’s portrait, height, weight, religion, political party, relationship and parental status, physical limitations, parents’ occupations, and other personal information, opening the door for employers to discriminate on many fronts.
A job ad from DuPont in the September 1973 issue of the SWE Newsletter humorously illustrates women engineers’ job prospects in light of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and affirmative action policies.
Job listings in the SWE Newsletter ballooned in the early 1970s from companies who would, in the words of a January 1972 University of Pittsburgh ad, “seriously consider an application from a woman.”
Responding to a question about employment prospects for women in engineering, in 1974 career guidance chairman BK Krenzer cautioned that legally and officially they had improved, “Thanks to a combination of new legislation, the women’s movement, and affirmative action plans … However, there is evidence that advancement for women beyond the entry level in engineering is still hard earned and requires not only exceptional qualifications but, sometimes, legal action.”

– Troy Eller English, SWE Archivist