Women's Engineering Society


Helen Close - Centenary Trail Project Officer

Helen Close talks about her role as Centenary Trail Project Officer for the Women's Engineering Society, working to highlight the contributions of female engineers throughout the years. Founded in 1918, the Society aims to support the education and employment of women in all areas of engineering.

The collection for WES is housed with the IET, and the Centenary Trail project celebrates the 100th anniversary of WES by expanding digital resources. Helen talks about engaging volunteers in Wikithons to increase the number of research pages for female engineers, creating an interactive map for people to see the diverse spread of where these women came from and digitizing The Woman Engineer journal which WES has published since 1919.

The project has increased interest in the history of women's engineering and has led to new donations to the collection, better representation in museums, and the commission of Blue Plaques in honor of significant female engineers.

Photo (Holmes & her friend Nancy Johnson and her two children, 1934, Pulham.) courtesy of © Andrew Fox, Private Collection & donor of the Verena Holmes Diaries


Website: https://www.wes.org.uk/wes-centenary

Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

hello and welcome to the max communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by helen close centenary trail project officer for the women's engineering society hi helen would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about the rule that you have at wes hi hi faye thank you thank you yes i'm centenary trail project officer and the centenary trail is a heritage lottery funded project to celebrate 100 years of women in engineering the project um was actually um fundamentally for 2019 but we've had an extension for the project which actually takes us into 2020 so we've been able to carry on what we've been doing the idea behind the project was to try and redress the balance of women in engineering as opposed to men in engineering a lot of people if you say to people about celebrating 100 years of women in engineering they say oh have women been in engineering that long and obviously we wanted to change that concept and so we've done that by a series of wikithons which are editing wikipedia entries and making sure that some of the women engineers that have been involved in the women's engineering society now have a place in history and also we have a virtual centenary trail map that actually has pin drops on a map shown where those women were located it was originally for the uk only but it's been so successful that we've now sort of gone a bit more global so we've got pin drops in other countries as well as england and scotland ireland and wales so it's been really really exciting it's it enabled us to open up our women's engineer journal which has been published since 1919 and that's been digitized by the iet our friends at the iet and it means that that journal is accessible now online people can go into it and look up particular women engineers and just see what was happening in engineering and what role women actually had to play in that because their stories have been lost over the years or they were never told in the first place so it's really really exciting so how did the concept of kind of having a trail map come about then um well it was before i was actually involved in the project there were several members of wes or volunteers that worked with wes that were passionate about the history of women in engineering and they got together and looked at how they could address that the lack of profile of women engineers wikipedia is the go-to place now for people finding out information but the majority of those that are editing wikipedia entries are men largely white middle-class males and therefore the topics that are addressed on wikipedia tend to sort of take that slant and we wanted to try and raise the profile of women engineers so that anybody looking for women engineers or women in history would find the engineers wes has some quite high profile women engineers that people have heard of for example amy johnson most people know of her as a pilot but she had a pilot's ground licence which meant that she was actually an engineer she could fix her own aeroplane as she did during her flights but there are so many other women that needed their voices heard so that's where it came that's where the idea came about and the idea of having a map is something that people can actually sort of look at their own locality see whether there's anybody from there and they the map the pin drops actually link through into the wikipedia pages as well so you can find out more about your your chosen woman engineer of interest do you have a lot of material relating to these women or is it more just uh more concentrated on the subject matter it's it's everything really we've got a right mixed formula of archives so as i've said the main source for the project was the women's engineer journal but we have minutes of the women's engineers society meetings there's conference documents wes was the first women's engineering society in the world and was a leader in that later organizations were set up internationally but wares have been involved in international women's engineering conferences and training for women engineers and we've got newsletters public publicity campaign materials publications produced by wes so training documents that sort of thing um and lots of photographs as well but we are we have also got people's personal papers as well some of those have come up come into our collection because of the centenary trail project because profile has been raised so my particular favorite is the varina homes diaries we've had 18 diaries of the engineer marina holmes donated and some of her personal papers and letters there's been other um family members of other engineers that have been in touch with us and have said look we've got all these papers we don't know what to do with them we know that they were fundamental in what whatever type of engineering that they were involved in and they've donated the papers to to the collection which is which is great and it means that historians of engineering researchers academics can access that those papers and and put more meat on the bones of the story of women engineers so this project is about opening your collection to a wider audience and getting more people interested in the history of female engineering and also hopefully uh interesting younger generations as well i mean that's precisely it's we stay in west if you can see it you can be it and it's key to try and get more women into engineering women and young girls into engineering and the way we can help them is to raise the profile of those women those historical women engineers and bring them to the forefront and hopefully inspire future generations and we can see that certainly within the last 20 years there's been a lot more women involved in engineer engineering and those that have been involved in our project so the volunteers that have been involved in our project obviously are women engineers themselves a lot of them and are acting as stem ambassadors and helping to carry forward the their legacy who at the moment is is interested in your sort of history the archive the collections of women in engineering who accesses that at the moment we get inquiries from authors researchers academics and people that are interested in finding out more about either a particular engineer be it a family member or somebody that they've they've heard of but also in particular types of engineering as well so we get inquiries all the time from different people television media wanting to find out a bit more we had an inquiry last week from abroad actually wanting to check the validity of some of the information that they were wanting to put out i think it was a radio quiz or something like that and wanting to highlight women that had invented things so 10 10 women that had were reputedly the inventors of various household objects and things like that and so they just wanted to check that their information matched sort of our information because a lot of years ago women weren't actually allowed to patent register patents in their own names so in some cases men took the kudos for actually inventing things whereas a lot of inventions take a long time to actually come to fruition and there are often there are cases of women who whose stories have been lost because a gentleman may have taken the the credit for those inventions so that's something else that we like to sort of promote what are the challenges you've come across whilst putting this project together with regards to the actual collection the wes office is based in stevenage and hertfordshire but the actual archive is based at the institute of engineering and technology down in london at savoy place so that accessibility is to that archive is obviously challenging and looked at looked down it's been even more challenging some of the other things that have been problematic has have been changing personnel so the project i wasn't originally involved in the project until june 2019 and there was somebody before me in position so obviously i've had to sort of then pick up the gauntlet and then learn to run before i can walk so it's that's been a challenge the other thing is i suppose the dichotomy between historians and engineers because both come at things from different angles so yeah historians aren't particularly good at engineering and engineer engineers aren't particularly interested in history necessarily so you know they their problem they like solving problems coming up with solutions and looking backwards doesn't necessarily give them the drive that they like so classic science versus humanities isn't it absolutely definitely what so how many people have you reached through this so far oh now you've caught me out um um couldn't give you statistics we've done quite a few wikithons that have accessed anywhere between 10 and 50 volunteers so each time i've been involved in a lot of talks public talks now to raise the profile of the project so again everything going online is kind of difficult to catch that you know keep tabs of numbers and because i've been invited along to be guest speaker at various different organizations that are involved in engineering and women's engineering you know we don't always have access to those figures the evaluation of the project is due at the end of february so we'll have a near a clearer idea of how many people we've actually accessed but in terms of the project itself we were originally tasked with actually or the the project itself wanted to get 200 pin drops on the map we now have over 300 pin drops i think it was 347 at the last count so that's a lot more women engineers located on on the map that now have comprehensive wikipedia pages whereas i think when we first started there was probably only about five women that were actually but don't quote me on that i think it was probably about five well-known women that actually had wikipedia pages and weren't necessarily highlighted as women engineers either you know their engineering background kind of may have got lost in in their whatever other public story they had going on so yeah yeah but as you say some of that's just unconscious bias i think some people don't don't think that's all it is yeah definitely so what are your hopes or as an organization for the future of the west uh going forward and highlighting past generations of female engineers yeah i mean where's wesley's role is to train and educate and support women in engineering and networking for women engineers so obviously that campaign continues that that is what they were that's why they were founded with regards to the historical side of it obviously it's funding led and this project runs out in february uh 2021 but we are hoping to get funding for more projects to be able to just continue the the drive that we have not necessarily through wikipedia or wiki wikithons but but other community events or trying to engage local communities in telling the story of maybe their local women engineer perhaps finding trying to link the pin drops through to something tangible on the ground in a location so for example i know that as part of the project and some of our volunteers have actually managed to get blue plaques in locations so hilde lyon who was instrumental in designing airships and the design of airships carolina hazlet so she was responsible for designing the three the three pin plug that we have in the uk so things like that so trying to actually get women engineers and their histories embedded in the locations and also things like making sure that museums actually tell the whole story so for example we've been involved in science the museum science and industry in manchester and helping make sure that they've got women engineers in with their science and industry collection and that sort of thing so rather than it just be one woman engineer as a token engineer mentioned to actually have more about the history of women engineers in various places that's interesting to say that i think that really intersects with especially things that we going on this year black lives matter and the idea that people who aren't white also have a place in our history and it's not just one token person it's lots of people yes exactly exactly and obviously diversity is something that the women's engineering society supports and not just women you know not just women in engineering but also the background to that where did they learn about engineering what support networks they had behind them i'm particularly interested from a personal point of view in the can you be a professional woman and have a career and have a family and it's quite interesting looking at some of the women engineers from the past who had to make that decision just because of society's rules going back for even 50 years where if you got married you were expected to give up work and there weren't weren't the child care opportunities available that they are now is they're still severely lacking in the sector but you know we're moving forward all the time but it's interesting to look at the different challenges that face the women then and ask ourselves how much how much well how far forward we've actually moved you know the uk has about 12 of women in the engineering sector other countries excuse me other countries and have a far higher population of women in the engineering sector and we have to kind of ask why that happens and you know why in the uk in particular women aren't encouraged to become engineers engineering typically is thought of as a mechanical dirty you know it's not a job for girls which isn't true at all as all of our wes engine where's engineers now where's members will say to you it's an inspiring and interesting career and certainly going forward you know women make up half the population of the world so you know we have a view and a take on how to perhaps solve the problem some of the problems that the the world is going to face in the future so pollution all of these sorts of things sustainability you know there's women out there working on these problems and these projects and so they should yeah and it's not as though everything's already been invented just because we have suspension bridges and airplanes and stuff doesn't mean there's not lots of engineering feats to be accomplished of course and the you know the world throws different different things as every day as we know at the moment you know so be interesting how many women have been involved in the biological engineering side of the side of things for coming up with a vaccine yeah and you'll have more stories to tell in future definitely from our times thank you helen for joining us today and talking about the wealth of women who have been left behind in history and your efforts to combat that and from your your pin project just uh highlighting them and giving people an opportunity to see who is local to them and who whose story can inspire them and also your attempts through wiki wikipedia to tackle that unconscious bias that's a really interesting uh point that you've made there and tackling that so that project is really a positive way of doing that thank you if i can just let you know some web links if that's okay the wes itself is the is wes.org dot uk so that's w-e-s dot org o-r-g dot u-k and then if you want to look at the centenary trail map that is on that same web link but with forward slash centenary hyphen map and a couple of other projects that may be of interest on the web are electrifying women dot org that's electrifying women all one word and also magnificentwomen.org.uk who have been involved in similar kinds of projects and who we have worked closely with certainly over the last two years if not longer than that and so they're also involved in trying to spread the word of women in engineering not just from a west point of view either so yeah oh that's fantastic work you're doing and you can check out pins wherever you live in india there's some in africa i had to look at the mapper very comprehensive hopefully we'll have more to drop down over the coming years yep hopefully yeah definitely thank you helen was lovely talking to you thank you