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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.