The University of Michigan has eagerly embraced expanding diversity in the aerospace industry. In honor of National Women’s Month, we take a closer look at the past and trailblazers of the Aerospace Department.
The Past: First Female Aerospace Engineer
Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill is a woman of seemingly innumerable “firsts.” In 1927, she became the first woman to receive an Electrical Engineering degree in Canada from the University of Toronto. In 1929, she became the first woman in North America – perhaps even the world – to receive a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan. That same year, Elsie was afflicted with polio, a condition that she was told would leave her unable to walk. During her recovery, Elsie wrote numerous aviation publications and pursued a doctoral degree at MIT.
Steadily gaining a reputation as a formidable engineer, Elsie was appointed as Chief Aeronautical Engineer of the Canadian Car and Foundry Company in 1938; there, she designed the Maple Leaf II trainer, becoming the first female aircraft designer in the world. During World War II, Elsie led production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter airplanes, leading to her nickname of “Queen of the Hurricanes.” Her success in this role garnered such international attention that a comic book was published in the United States in her honor. During this time, Elsie also developed solutions for winter operation of airplanes, including de-icing protocols and retrofit skis for snows landings.
The daughter of a suffragist, Elsie was an extremely vocal advocate of women’s and children’s rights. In 1952, she received the highly-distinguished annual Engineering Award from the Society of Women engineers. In 1971, she received the Order of Canada for her “services as an aeronautical engineering consultant and as a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.” In 1983, she was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame and was a founding inductee into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame.
The Present: First Female Aerospace Engineering Student Group on Campus
Almost 90 years since Elsie graduated from the Aerospace Engineering department as the first female aerospace engineer, the women in the department remain a small, but emboldened, community. In 2016, the Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics (WAA) student organization was founded to provide a cohesive voice for this community, the first of its kind on the U-M campus. Kelly Henckel, CoE undergraduate and WAA founder, provides perspective on the group’s origins:
“Aerospace is traditionally one of the least diverse majors as far as gender and minorities go; coming into the Aero department, I saw that we lacked some of the same initiatives that other departments [such as EECS] have to support under-represented groups. I wanted to change that and help cultivate a more supportive environment for our students as well.”
As an organization, WAA seeks to provide mentorship and professional opportunities for women in the department. Kelly explains:
“One of our biggest department impacts is our mentorship program. We’ve seen it grow from 8 members last year to over 20 this semester. By grouping students into “families” [which consist of one student from each grade level and graduate studies] we create a much more tangible community for women and minorities in the major. We also have developed a corporate reception event, which connects representatives from companies in a one-on-one setting with students in our group; we’ve found this program to be an overwhelming success, as it gives students and recruiters the opportunity to interact on an individual level outside the craziness of career fair.”
In describing WAA, Kelly was careful to clarify that the group is not restricted to purely female membership; it is meant to serve as a network for all individuals interested in supporting diversity in the department:
“We are not exclusively a women’s group. Anyone should feel comfortable joining. We have recently partnered with groups outside the aerospace department, including O-STEM (the LGBTQ STEM student group). We are trying to make aerospace more accessible to women, a goal that requires involvement of the entire community: men, women, non-binary alike. After all, it’s been a long rode for women in aerospace engineering – not so long ago, all the women in our department could be counted on one hand.”
Industry Advisory Board Member Karen Albrecht can attest to that era; when she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering from U-M in 1972, she was one of the only women pursuing the degree. She recounts:
“I never really realized that there was discrimination against women in aerospace, until I got to class and realized I was the only girl. It was a little unnerving. [In my early career], there were times when a women’s bathroom was a half mile away. I had a sign that said ‘Karen’ that I’d put on the men’s bathroom when I was using it.”
Karen has gone on to lead an illustrious career as an Aerospace Engineer working on Space Shuttle, Missile Launch Systems, commercial aircraft and high-performance military aircraft. She reflects on the boundaries she broke as she rose through the ranks:
“I had mentors along the way. After I left NASA and went to Martin Marietta, I remember walking into my boss’s office to discuss my performance. He said that some people were concerned when I was originally hired [due to my being a woman] – but that now, they weren’t concerned anymore. Honestly, this was a surprise to me, because my expectations of myself are always much higher. I went on to create a cost estimation analysis [tool] that was used [across the company.]”
Both Karen and Kelly are optimistic about the future path of women in the field. For Karen:
“I’ve seen an uptick in female engagement the past 2 or 3 years. We now have a much greater diversity of knowledge and experience on the Aerospace faculty [with female faculty Dr. Ella Atkins, Dr. Anouck Girard, Dr. Dimitra Panagou, Dr. Nakhiah Goulbourne, and Dr. Margaret Wooldridge] and serving on the Advisory Board [with members Debra Faktor-Lepore, Trudy Kortes, Jennifer Duke, and myself]. I’ve seen huge growth and evolution in the ‘products’ produced by our department – the students! Not only has their technical knowledge increased, but also their outreach involvement, well-roundedness, and diversity.
We aren’t going to go from 10% to 50% women in our department overnight – but the fact that [WAA is] here and the fact that the department is supporting this progress is a huge step in the right direction.Kelly Henckel
As a student, Kelly similarly notices a change:
“Beyond just WAA, I see other groups within the aerospace department and the aerospace industry pushing for change. I see trends of companies and universities making [diversity and equity] a big priority, especially in STEM fields like aerospace. Of course, we aren’t going to go from 10% to 50% women in our department overnight – but the fact that we are here and the fact that the department is supporting this progress is a huge step in the right direction.”