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  • Writer's pictureMrsAeroLec

A Short History of Women at TU Delft Aerospace Engineering

After my recent blogs on the first female aeronautical engineer and the first female aircraft designers, I wanted to look at the history of women in aerospace engineering a little closer to home, at my own alma mater, Delft University of Technology, often abbreviated as TU Delft.

shows an aerial photograph of the Faculty buildings of Aerospace Engineering TU Delft
Faculty of Aerospace Engineering TU Delft (CC - BY - 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

History of Women at TU Delft

To put the story in a little bit of perspective first a little bit of history on women in Dutch academia in general. Although not the first woman to study at university, the first woman to graduate and gain a phD was physician dr. Aletta Jacobs in 1879 at the University of Groningen. After her success, many women slowly followed, depending on the admissions policy at each institute. A change in the Dutch education system in 1876 allowed anyone with national advanced secondary education diplomas ("gymnasium" or "HBS") to gain entry to university, although not all universities were equally happy to admit women.

The TU Delft was initially established as the Royal Academy in 1842, by King William II, after which it was restarted as the Polytechnical School in 1864, which became an Institute of Technology in 1905. Since 1986 it is known as Delft University of Technology or TU Delft. Its first ever graduate was dr. ir. Lewis Cohen Stuart in 1868, a civil engineer, and its first female graduate was Maria Elizabeth Bes in 1904, a chemical engineer, followed in 1912 by the first female PhD graduate, Jeanne van Amstel, only 7 years after TU Delft was granted the right to award PhDs. It took until 1954 for TU Delft to appoint a woman as full professor: Prof. dr. ir. Antonia Elizabeth Korvezee.

One of the reasons for this low number of women is that whilst universities were open to women in The Netherlands, it was much harder for women to practice in their chosen profession, due to a marriage ban at public institutions and the fact that married women were deemed legally incapacitated, measures which were only abolished in 1957, and due to the lack of childcare facilities or the ability for children to eat lunch at school instead of going home for lunch until well into the 1980s. Having a career and a family was often an uphill battle, as is also reported in the online exposition of TU Delft's Academic Heritage.

Women at Aerospace Engineering

When in May 1940, prof. dr. ir. van der Maas was appointed at the first professor in aeronautics, this was quickly followed in 1943 by the first graduate in aeronautics, ir. R. Lucassen. In 1945, after the end of World War II, the Society of Aerospace Engineering Students was founded, known locally as the VSV. The first PhD in aeronautics was awarded to ir. J.H. Greidanus in 1947, as well as its first ever honorary doctorate to Albert Plesman, founder of KLM in that same year. Over the years, the number of students studying aeronautical, from 1975 renamed aerospace engineering, shows a steady growth.

However, it would be until 1956 until the first woman registers to study aeronautical engineering, 16-year old Indonesian national Koo Siu Ling. This fete makes all the national newspapers at the time, as does her graduation in 1965.

During her time in Delft, one more woman starts her degree, Hedwig Ritzen. in 1966 she becomes the first female board member of VSV Leonardo Da Vinci, elected as vice-president, and in 1969 she becomes the first Dutch woman to graduate with an aeronautical engineering degree from TU Delft.

shows number of MSc degrees in aerospace engineering awarded by TU Delft from 1942 until 2020/21 for men and women and cumulative and average percentage of women receiving an MSc in Aerospace Engineering from TU Delft
Data from TU Delft (Yearbooks, statistical yearbooks, Osiris and TU Delft website)

After these two women, it becomes very quiet. A few women start their degree in aerospace engineering, but very few finish. Records from TU Delft show that between 1970 and 1989 only 3 women graduate, even though the 1000th degree in aerospace engineering was awarded in 1982. On a personal note, when studying these records in more detail, I was shocked to find out that I myself was still among the first 70 women to graduate with an aerospace engineering degree from TU Delft, even though I graduated in the summer of 1998. It explains why back then all women who graduated were given flowers at our diploma ceremony by the faculty to mark the special occasion, a tradition which was abandoned a few years later at the request of the female graduates who felt it was unnecessary. Little did we know that only 10 years prior the 10th ever woman graduated from aerospace at TU Delft. Back then we did not think that study aerospace engineering as a woman was a big deal. We formed 8-12% of the student population and felt perfectly accepted and at home.

Continuing on first at Aerospace Engineering, it took almost 50 years after the first man to be awarded his PhD in aeronautics, for a woman to gain her PhD in Aerospace Engineering. In June 1996, Sharon Donohoe, a U.S. citizen, defends her PhD thesis entitled: the Vortex flow and Vortex Breakdown above a delta wing in high subsonic flow -an experimental investigation. Her promotor was prof. dr. ir. P. Bakker. Although there is a really long time between these two milestones, it is good to realise that dr. Donohoe was only the 66th person ever to be awarded a PhD degree in aeronautical or aerospace engineering in 1996 at TU Delft and that a formal PhD programme was not established at TU Delft until 1985.

shows number of PhD degrees in aerospace engineering awarded by TU Delft from 1942 until 2020/21 for men and women and cumulative and average percentage of women receiving a PhD in Aerospace Engineering from TU Delft
Based on TU Delft data from Yearbooks, repository, and TU Delft website

When it comes to women being a visible part of the teaching staff at aerospace engineering, we have to wait even longer. In the early nineties, several courses in the aerospace curriculum were taught by women, assistant and associate professors, from the Applied Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering departments amongst others. Also there were women who worked as teaching assistants and women PhDs who assisted in teaching. However, it was not until September 1999 that ir. Petra Vos and myself were the first women employed by the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering to teach LR1-018-I 'Introduction to Aerospace Engineering' to incoming first-year students as adjunct teaching staff with the introduction of English as a teaching language in the bachelor curriculum. Fortunately, we would not be the only ones for long. In late 1999, Hester Bijl was appointed as the first ever woman as an assistant professor at Aerospace Engineering, followed by being the first woman to be appointed as an associate professor in 2002 and being the first woman to be appointed to full professor in 2006. In 2013, she was also the first woman to be appointed as dean of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. One year later, in 2014 Deborah Hersman, then chairman of the National Transportation and Safety Board in the U.S.A. became the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate in Aerospace Engineering from TU Delft.

From left to right: Prof. dr. ir. Hester Bijl (CC-BY-SA-4.0 Monique Shaw), Prof dr. ir. Mirjam Snellen (CC-BY-NC-SA TU Delft) and Deborah Hersman (NTSB, Public Domain)

This may seem all a bit dire, but quickly after the appointment of Hester Bijl, many other women were appointments to our academic staff, such as Marilena Pavel, Mirjam Snellen, and the late Antonia Terzi (chief vehicle designer of the Superbus and chief aerodynamicist at Williams Formula 1) and over the years that followed many more women were appointed. However, it would take until the summer of 2020, 80 years after the first professor in aeronautics at TU Delft was appointed for a female graduate of TU Delft Aerospace Engineering to be appointed to full professor: Prof. dr. ir. Mirjam Snellen.

Women of VSV Leonardo da Vinci

Although the student association regularly had women serving as board members, with Hedwig Ritzen being the first women to serve as a board member, it was not until 2019 that Leanne van Dam became the first woman to become President of VSV Leonardo Da Vinci and in that same year, the VSV also appointed its first woman as Member of Honour, then Boeing Benelux and Nordics director, ir. Tineke Bakker - van der Veen, herself a TU Delft Aerospace Engineering graduate. But I am delighted to be able to report that this academic year Stella Wessels is the second woman president.

Current State of Affairs

Today, the share of women at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering is much higher than the low levels it had until well into the 1990s. Based on TU Delft's publicly published data (status reported per October 2021), women made up 11% of the number of Bachelor and Master degrees awarded in 2020/21 and their share in enrolment numbers for the BSc and MSc cohorts who started in September of 2021 is even higher: 18% and 16%, respectively. Women currently account for 24% of all PhD students at Aerospace Engineering and 13% of all Post-Docs. Although after the departure of Hester Bijl to Leiden University, currently no female academic staff are serving on the faculty's management team. Today, Mirjam Snellen is still one of only two women who currently hold permanent appointments as full professor at Aerospace Engineering (as do just 24 men). In addition, prof. dr. Imke de Pater, emeritus professor from UC Berkeley, has an appointment as external professor. In total however, 22% of all academic and teaching staff are women, in part due to recent recruitment initiatives. There is still a long way to go though on many fronts.


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