Earning Respect

Edith Clarke was one of nine children in her prosperous family.  She was expected to become a traditional housewife in a privileged environment.  When her parents died when she was 12, she was raised by an older sister.  Using a small inheritance, she went to Vassar to study math and astronomy.

After college she taught math and physics, but didn’t like teaching.  She decided she would rather be an engineer.  She returned to college to study civil engineering.  That didn’t last long.  She took a job at AT&T as a computer.  This was 1912 when computing was done by hand.  The calculations she did were for electrical transmission lines.  This sparked an interest in electrical engineering and she returned to college to study electrical engineering.

She was the first woman to receive a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT.  Even with a master’s, she was unable to get a job as an engineer due to her gender.  She was hired to supervise the computers at GE.  She gained respect at GE by inventing a calculator to solve equations involving transmission lines.  She patented her device and gave it the name Clarke Calculator.

She left GE because she was not able to do electrical engineering work and was being paid less than men doing the same work.  Eventually, she returned to GE and became the first female professional electrical engineer in America.  She had earned respect at GE.

She became the first woman to deliver a paper at her national society’s annual meeting.  She had determined the maximum power that a transmission line could hold.  This work was critical to developing America’s power grid.  She increased her respect as an engineer.

Later, she worked on the turbines installed at the Hoover Dam for delivering electricity to the American west.  Toward the end of her career at GE, she wrote a book on power engineering.  This work was critical for understanding how America could develop its power grid.  It became the basis for our current power grid.  She increased her respect as an engineer.

Other firsts for Edith Clarke were:

  • The first professor of electrical engineering in the nation.
  • The first woman to be recognized by Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society.
  • The first Fellow of her professional society.

Edith Clarke, like women in other professional fields, was required to earn the respect of professional establishments.  Earning respect can be a professional motivator for some and a deterrent for others.  Young professionals often struggle with the reality that they have to earn respect.  Degrees and GPAs don’t guarantee respect.  Hard work, new ideas, and simply getting the job done are what earn respect.

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                “Respect your efforts, respect yourself.  Self-respect leads to self-discipline.  When you have both firmly under your belt, that’s real power.” – Clint Eastwood (actor)

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