Stories From an Engineering Office – #1- A Female Engineer is Hired

It happened around 1970. An exact date is beyond my memory, but I can tell you the following.

Our department within Hamilton Standard consisted of about two hundred people during the many years of the development of the Apollo Portable Life Support System (PLSS) and the environmental control system for the Lunar Excursion Module. Most of the two hundred were engineers, male engineers. True, we did employ one female engineer, but not in an engineering position. She had received her degree in the 1940’s as I recall, and she appeared satisfied with the type of work that she did. Why was she our only female engineer? I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think it was a lack of appreciation of the engineering abilities of women. The fact was that there simply weren’t many women in the profession at that time.  And what a time it was.

Our first hiring in the new era of a young woman engineer right out of college happened after we had finished our designs for Apollo, made the hardware, tested it, and provided it to NASA. In fact, it had already gone to the Moon. So that left just about exactly an acre of space without cubicles, a sea of desks and drawing boards containing no computers or even calculators, awash in engineers that had no contract left to support them. We then did what any upstanding company would do under the circumstances.  We started laying people off.

By the time layoffs had run their course, the leavings looked pretty bleak. Coffee mug stained empty desks were everywhere.  Those two hundred people had done a spectacular job of putting the first man on the Moon for their country, and now the country was done with them. It was truly a sad thing to see.

However, as most upstanding companies will do under such circumstances, our department went hunting for new work.  Slowly it began to happen. New work started to emerge, but it was too late for those who were transferred to other parts of the company or who had been layed off. And one day, into this sparse atmosphere, walked our first female engineer of the new era. I never met her. I never knew her name.  Why, you ask?  Read on!

This young woman had hired on to work on a project funded by the new EPA. It was that and the fact that her brother was nearby in a school for either the blind or the deaf, just another detail I don’t remember. She had accepted the offer from Hamilton based upon those two items.

The story gets kind of bizarre at this point. Her new boss, being one of us, a man that is, blindly insensitive to the aesthetics that please women, set her down at a desk in the middle of several other empty desks. He then piled half the desk high with documents having nothing to do with the EPA contract, told her to study them, and informed her that the EPA contract was delayed for a while, and she would have to do other work instead. He then turned and walked away. And just to top it all off, the desk was filthy.

I’m sure none of this was done on purpose. They would have done the same, maybe worse, if they just hired a young man. And the young man would simply have said, “OK.” Ah, but this was no simple case. This person was a young woman. The very next day I watched from my desk, maybe thirty feet away, as two guards escorted her out of our one acre wasteland of a department, never to be seen again. Goodbye, whoever you are! It was one of those “What just happened?” moments.

Later that day, one of our young male engineers stopped by my desk. If anyone would have the whole story, he would. He told me about her desire to work on the EPA contract and her desire to be near her brother. And he said in amazement that she had been displeased with what she had experienced upon arrival less than twenty-four hours earlier and had quit right then and there.

And then he said a curious thing. “If it happened to a man, he wouldn’t quit.  We don’t have the guts!”

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