In 1970 Caltech opened its doors for the first time to undergraduate women. This year, Caltech celebrates the graduation of those pioneers, who went on to forge new paths across science, technology, and engineering.
Jacqueline Barton, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, speaks with five alumnae who were among the first women to graduate from the Institute about their time at Caltech, their experiences in the decades that followed, and the role of women in the sciences today.
Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry; Chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Sharon Long (BS ’73)
Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University
Rhonda L. MacDonald (BS ’74)
Former Director of Structures and Mechanisms Products, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems
Louise Kirkbride (BS ’75, MS ’76)
Cofounder of CADRI and Answer Systems and Trustee, Caltech
Lauretta Carroll (BS ’77)
CEO, Practice Today
Suzanne Shea (BS ’79)
Cofounder and Executive Vice President, Praxis Engineers
Barton: First of all, let me say that it’s an honor to speak with you all. Each of you was part of a class of pioneers. I’m curious to know why you chose Caltech, knowing that it had only just begun to accept women.
MacDonald: I was interested in math and wanted to attend a school where I could try some engineering courses. I was attracted to Caltech for the same reasons many are—its reputation for excellence in science and engineering, its small size, and its excellent faculty-to-student ratio. My high school guidance counselor actually tried to cancel my interview with a Caltech professor because, he said, “You will be going to Smith College.” I told him that I was interested in engineering and that I would be going forward with the Caltech interview.
Long: I loved science as a child; I collected rocks and minerals and especially enjoyed chemistry. I first read about Caltech in Reader’s Digest and fell in love with its culture and tradition of pranks. I just thought, “What a creative, imaginative, and interesting place.”
Kirkbride: Once I heard that Caltech was the hardest school to get in to, it was irresistible. Harry Gray [Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry] actually interviewed me. You usually think of scientists being so stuffy—but I couldn’t imagine a more engaging, dynamic person. After I met him, I would have crawled over broken glass to get to Caltech.
Shea: My mother first tried to dissuade me, warning me that I was heading in a direction where there would not be very many women, which would be tough. I said: “I know. I think it’s going to be part of my job in life—to be one of the first women in these fields.” When I made my choice, she was very proud of me attending Caltech, and extremely supportive.
Carroll: I was a product of the Los Angeles public school system in 1972, when it was really in disarray and we joked that it was a feat just to graduate without a criminal record. I had my sights set higher. To be placed at Caltech was a real achievement, of which I’m very proud.
Barton: So when you arrived at Caltech, did you feel different? Were you aware of being the first women on campus?
Kirkbride: You were certainly aware that this was a momentous change for Caltech, yes. Most of the campus was very supportive, but there were some rough edges—some professors, including my first advisor, who voiced their opposition.
Long: You heard some rumblings that people considered it an experiment—and that if the experiment didn’t work, they would just “undo it.” But these changes were happening at many campuses, and we knew there really was no going back.
Carroll: My first advisor said, “Well, Carroll, you know you have to pass AMa 95 [now ACM 95/100],” in such a way that I knew he doubted that I would. I found that unfortunate, but in a strange way, it made me stronger. I became absolutely determined to do the work—and I did very well.
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Barton: Despite some of the doubts and opposition, each of you stayed and stuck it out. What drove you?
Kirkbride: You had to expect some of that resistance. But at the top, the Institute was completely committed to and accepting of us. [Former Caltech President] Harold Brown was very supportive, and his help meant a great deal. Carver Mead [Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus] was just tremendous. He was the reason I got out of astrophysics and into electrical engineering.
Long: I agree—there were so many who supported us. I remember Elsa Garmire, who was a research associate in physics. She helped to organize a series on women in science, bringing in outside speakers such as [the Columbia physicist and winner of the Wolf Prize] Chien-Shiung Wu. That was so important and is to Caltech’s credit.
Barton: Were there other mentors who helped you?
Shea: Robert Cannon [then chair of Engineering and Applied Science] was hugely supportive. He was very interested in advances in undergraduate education at the time and so was enthusiastic about finding ways to have more women at Caltech. I really benefited from that.
MacDonald: Rolf Sabersky [Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus] was my undergraduate advisor at Caltech. He was there for me through thick and thin. When my mother had to sell her business due to her poor health, we weren’t sure how we would pay for Caltech. He stood ready to help in any way needed so that I could continue.
Barton: What were some of the early experiences and challenges you faced as women once you went out into the professional world?
Carroll: I went into a very small group at Hughes Aircraft that was filled with nothing but Caltech graduates—so it was just like being on campus. It was a very special and supportive environment.
MacDonald: My first job was in structural engineering in the petrochemical industry, at a company where I was the first woman engineer. I had to buck some silly company dress codes—women had to wear dresses—which were impractical for visiting job sites and steel fabricators. At one time, my salary significantly lagged behind those of my male peers. I provided my supervisor with current salary data and said that I expected the inequity to be rectified or I would have to seek employment elsewhere. The adjustment to my salary was made, and I never faced inequitable compensation again.
Carroll: Wow. You were lucky. That didn’t happen for everyone.
Kirkbride: I went to work in aerospace. I remember a lead engineer said he “simply wouldn’t work with a woman.” I just sat there in his room cooling my heels. A lot of this sounds outrageous today—but that’s the way the world was. I didn’t necessarily feel that people were evil; they were products of their time. You just had to push on.
Shea: I completely agree. The fact that some people wouldn’t work with me led me to start my own company with a colleague, combining my expertise in computer and controls with his in the energy field. We created our own work environment and set our own standards for professionalism.
Barton: I’ve noticed confidence is often a big issue for the many young women who come through my lab. Did Caltech help you to achieve more confidence? Did it help to have the Caltech imprimatur?
Kirkbride: I certainly think so. I took one year off to work for the Burroughs Corporation in Santa Barbara, where I learned just how highly my peer engineers regarded Caltech. When you’re inside the Caltech bubble, you don’t understand how respected the Institute is. It opened so many doors. It just put to bed any questions about my competence.
Carroll: The way I look at it: If someone finds out you went to Caltech, their opinion of you changes. If they don’t know about Caltech—then your opinion of them changes.
Barton: Many people say that “Caltech teaches you how to think.” Do you agree?
Long: Absolutely! Caltech gave me a foundation in how to think through problems. If a question is important enough, then I have both the hunger and the confidence to go back to fundamental principles and solve it.
Barton: What is your sense of where women are today in science and engineering?
Kirkbride: Statistically, Caltech still lags a bit behind our peer institutions in the number of applications from women. But when you look nationally, studies indicate that once women are admitted to college, they graduate at a higher rate than the men do. We need to persuade more talented and ambitious young women to consider Caltech.
Carroll: Personally, given my background, I would like to see more women of color at Caltech. I think we could do better there: Because if we’re interested in raising women, then we want to see all women succeed and flourish—both at Caltech and in science as a whole.
MacDonald: Beyond Caltech—I’d say women have made inroads in a number of scientific areas. But in many other fields such as mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering, women still represent only a small percentage of the number of contributors. I’d love to see more women take on the technical challenges in these exciting industries.
Barton: How do you maintain your connections and your involvement with Caltech?
MacDonald: There are numerous opportunities to stay connected and involved with Caltech. I’ve been heavily involved through the Caltech Alumni Association, the Caltech Associates, Caltech’s Gnomes, and the Caltech Y. It gives me great pleasure to support an undergraduate scholarship, since I greatly appreciate the financial aid that Caltech made available to me during my undergraduate years.
Kirkbride: I now serve as a trustee. Caltech was a formative experience for me, and I’m grateful for the leadership of those who pushed the Institute to open its doors to women, making it possible for me to attend. I think it’s important to stay involved and help shape Caltech for future generations.
Barton: Would you recommend Caltech to aspiring female scientists and engineers?
Carroll: Oh, absolutely. One hundred percent.
Long: The knowledge and content that you get from any school or major is going to be of some use, but its usefulness will vary. Caltech teaches you the courage and discipline to work through things you don’t know. That endures a lifetime.
Shea: That’s true. The ability to tackle new problems, break things down, start from first principles, apply what you’ve learned to different disciplines—it’s incredibly powerful and was one of the greatest things that I got from Caltech.
Kirkbride: A Caltech degree ends all discussion about whether you’re competent or not. Period. If you are interested in science and engineering, I don’t think you can do any better.
Women at Caltech Today
Photos: Stephanie Diani, Lance Hayashida, Ben Tomlin