2. Trends

Statistics related to Education and Business/Industry gender in the culture and era.

Kwolek graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1940 with a degree in chemistry. The college scene was very different then than it is now; only two Ivy League schools admitted females, and only for very rare cases, until the 70s and the proportion of racial minorities attending, much less completing, college was substantially lower than white males or females. (Snyder, 1993, McLaughlin, 2014) In 1947, just 12.2% of 18-19 year old women were attending college. By 1970, that proportion was at 34.6% and in 1988 was sitting at 45.8%. (Bishop, 1990) In 1940, just 3.8% of women in the U.S. population had completed four years or more of college (by comparison, 5.5% of men existed in the same measure). (Statista, 2015)

Kwolek’s industry, that of experimental organic chemistry, was heavily dominated by men during the years in which she did her research. To be fair, all of the scientific, mathematics, and engineering fields were overwhelming male between 1940 and 1960.

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A graph of employment rates for women in engineering and science fields between 1950 and 1960. © 1965, American Association for the Advancement of Science

In fact, in the field of chemistry, specifically, there was only a 3.6% increase in females entering the workforce from 1950 to 1960.

How have the statistics changed over time?

By 2015, roughly 32.7% of women graduated college or obtained a higher educational degree. (Statista, 2015) That’s almost a full 30% increase from the year Kwolek graduated from Carnegie Mellon. All the Ivy League schools now accept female students, still at lower rates than their acceptance of male students, (Birger, 2015)) and the gender gap in college attendance now favors women: more females attend and more females graduate college than males in the U.S. (Lopez & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2014)

Kwolek’s industry, as a result of more women gaining access to higher education, has seen a large growth of female representation. According to a 2016 report by the National Science Foundation, females now make up 35.2% of working chemists. (NSF, 2016)

How did education and business influence her technology?

First and foremost, without an education Stephanie Kwolek would not have been in a position to create or invent much of any technology. The industry’s attitude towards women does not seem to have influenced Kwolek’s research at all, as she won numerous awards and produced an entire “family” of inventions. Without anecdotal “evidence” from Kwolek herself, it would be difficult to ascribe any outside influences on her work aside from those implied by the statistics listed above. To my knowledge, however, Kwolek enjoyed a long and productive career working side-by-side male colleagues who made no issue of her possession of female anatomy.