Trailblazers in Technology: The Vital Role of Women in Advancing Space and Engineering

 “A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.”  These were the words spoken by the cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova as she made history as the first woman in space and boarded the Soviet Union’s Vostok 6 spacecraft in 1963.

Nearly six decades have passed since Valentina Tereshkova made her first flight into space and 93 women have followed suit. However, this represents a small but important portion of the 610 people who have reached Earth’s orbit (According to the USAF definition).

However, the incredible feat of putting astronauts in orbit and landing them on the moon wouldn’t have been possible without Katherine Johnson the visionary NASA mathematician whose calculations were key to their success. Katherine joined the NACA in June 1953 now known as NASA.

Even before this, the 1900s saw more women working with technology than ever before. This was partly due to big changes happening in factories during the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as World War I and II, meant that women had a lot of interaction with technology in the 1900s. Therefore, many women gained experience they otherwise may not have in early engineering by working with machinery in large factories and as telephone operators.

For some women, their impact was marked differently, through mathematics. Grete Hermann’s thesis “The Question of Finitely Many Steps in Polynomial Ideal Theory”, published in the late 1920s, was key in establishing algorithms for abstract algebra, which are like step-by-step instructions for solving problems. These algorithms became the foundation for the computer algebra systems we use today.

By the mid-1940s there were around one hundred female mathematicians who became “human computers” and tackled critical wartime tasks by meticulously calculating trajectory calculations by hand.

World War II proved to be a turning point for women in scientific fields. The Bletchley Park codebreaking operation during WWII stands as a prime example. The operation consisted of nearly 10,000 people and around 75% were women, yet these women were not formally recognised as analysts as their male counterparts were, their roles were instead downplayed, and their jobs described as ‘secretarial’.

1945 witnessed a groundbreaking moment in history when the first all-female computer programmers began work for the US Army. This team of highly skilled and brilliant-minded woman were recruited for the ENIAC project to set up and program the ENIAC machine to produce ballistics tables. These women were Kathleen McNulty, Betty Jean Jennings, Frances Bilas, Elizabeth Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff and Ruth Lichterman. They were referred to as “the ENIAC girls” and their work revolutionised computer programming.

Like the ENIAC programmers in the US, here in the UK “The Bletchley Park Girls” secretly pioneered computing during World War II. Despite their crucial role in developing technology that led to modern computers, their contributions remained unrecognised for decades. After being recruited by Alan Turing, Joan Clarke was the only woman to work in the core Enigma decryption team. Her ingenious work as a codebreaker helped shorten the war and saved countless lives.

During the 20th century we have seen a surge of female computer scientists –

  • Grace Hopper – A pioneer of computer programming and the first to devise the theory of machine-independent programming languages. Her greatest technical achievement was to create the tools that allowed people to communicate with computers in terms other than ones and zeroes. This advance influenced all future programming and software design and laid the foundation for the development of user-friendly personal computers.
  • Hedy Lamarr – Inventor accredited as inspiring modern Wi-Fi. In 1942 she developed the idea for a secret communication system aimed at setting radio-guided torpedoes off course. Her idea became the precursor to secure Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth tech used today.
  • Mary Wilkes – A former computer programmer and logic designer, known for her work with the LINC computer, now recognised by many as the world’s first “personal computer”.
  • Adele Goldberg – A computer scientist who made significant contributions to two fundamental areas of computing, object-oriented programming, and graphical user interfaces (GUIs). This pioneering work has transformed computers from complex machines into user-friendly tools. This is evident in the intuitive interfaces on our desktops and phones and the powerful applications we rely on daily, paved the way for computers to become an essential part of our modern lives.

In the aviation engineering industry, we have seen pioneers like Elsie MacGill, known as “Queen of the Hurricanes,” who became the first woman in the world to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1927. Her expertise and leadership were pivotal during World War II, overseeing the production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes. And in the 1950s and 60s, Mary Feik revolutionised aircraft maintenance techniques and safety protocols, contributing immensely to aviation engineering advancements.

More recently, women like Dr. Anita Sengupta have excelled in aerospace engineering, playing key roles in projects like NASA’s Mars Rover missions. These trailblazers have not only shattered gender stereotypes but have also inspired countless others to pursue careers in aviation engineering.

Over the past two decades, women have increasingly played pivotal roles in the space, aerospace, satellite communications (satcom), and defence industries, leaving an indelible mark on technological advancements and leadership.

Today, we see leaders like Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, orchestrating some of the most ambitious space missions of our time. Their contributions are not just footnotes in history; they are the foundation upon which the future of space exploration is built.

Despite the progress, women in engineering, particularly in the specialised fields of space, satcom, aerospace, and defence, face unique challenges. Representation matters, and while there has been significant growth, women still represent a small fraction of the workforce in these sectors.

Whilst strides have been made, women in engineering still face challenges and it’s been disappointing to read this week that the data released by EngineeringUK reveals that the proportion of women working in engineering and technology roles has declined in the past year from 16.5% to 15.7%. In contrast, women make up more than half of the rest of the UK workforce (56.1%). EngineeringUK Chief Executive Hilary Leevers, comments, “We are taking this small but significant decline very seriously. Behind the percentages are professional women with real lives and careers…..….the sector as a whole needs to better understand why women are leaving and work harder to improve their retention, including creating opportunities for those who have left the profession to return. It’s important we drive forward on all fronts….….each and every business leader should take this opportunity to sense check their own recruitment and retention practices and see how they can be improved.”

But there remain positives, with the data also showing that in 2023 there were more women entering engineering and technology occupations in the 16 to 34 age groups. This indicates more women are entering the workforce straight from education and training. We believe that amongst them will be great leaders who will also make an imprint on the industry and be recognised as pioneers and influential women who continue to drive innovation into the engineering industry. The challenge to us all is to ensure that we support them in their careers and seek to retain them in the industry.


< back to other articles