Women in Chemical Engineering

The first proposal for a Society of Chemical Engineers by George E. Davis in 1880, quoted Mr Eustace Cary’s definition:

“A Chemical Engineer is a person who possesses chemical and mechanical engineering knowledge, and applies that knowledge to the utilisation, on a manufacturing scale, of chemical action.” [Underwood Trans IChemE 43 (1965) T302]

It must be remembered that there were a significant number of women chemists. However, Davis himself referred to men (this was typical of the time), and when the IChemE was finally formed in 1922 its definition was this:

A chemical engineer is a professional man experienced in the design, construction and operation of plant and works in which matter undergoes a change of state or composition.” [Trans IChemE 1923]

Despite this, in 1942 Mrs Hilda Derrick joined as a student member, taking a correspondence diploma course in chemical engineering at Battersea Polytechnic. She was later active on the Careers and Education Committee, fighting employers’ attitude that women would just leave when they started a family, so were not worth the investment.

However, it was not until social changes in the 1960s and 1970s encouraged more women into technical degrees that female students started appearing regularly in chemical engineering courses. 

Latest occupational data [2018, Office for National Statistics] shows 6000 females out of 40,000 in “Production and process engineers” or 15%.]

In the 21st century female chemical engineering students have been consistently about 25% in the UK (though nearly 30 in the last admissions). In the same period they have been about 50% in chemistry and 10% in mechanical engineering.