Did you know that only 17% of Australian engineering degree enrolments come from women? It’s a male-dominated career, with men making up more than 88% of engineers working in Australia today. Back in the early 20th century, it was largely unheard of for women to be employed, let alone working in engineering – and that’s just one reason why the story of Florence McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer, is so impressive.
Born in 1890, Florence McKenzie enrolled to study electrical engineering at Sydney Technical College. She graduated with a diploma in 1923 after financial difficulty forced her to drop out of earlier science study at the University of Sydney around 1915. Soon after in 1924, Florence became the first certified Australian female radio telegraphist and the first woman to join the Wireless Institute of Australia.
Electricity was first introduced to Australia in the late 19th century, with homes receiving power throughout the 1890s. With the introduction of electricity came the introduction of electric cooking appliances which revolutionised the way people cooked in their homes. In 1934, Florence founded the Electrical Association for Women, where she taught classes on the use of electrical appliances and how to cook with electricity.
Florence once said; “To see every woman emancipated from the “heavy” work of the household by the aid of electricity is in itself a worthy object.”
That was merely the beginning of Florence’s contributions to electrical engineering in Australia. In 1938, Florence joined the Australian Women’s Flying Club – a social club for female aviators founded by Australian aviator Nancy Bird Walton, that had much larger ambitions. Nancy and the club’s members lobbied to turn the club into a women’s airforce to aid in the war, while Florence began training women in radio telegraphy.
Later, she formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC), which trained over 3,000 women for free ahead of World War II. A third of these initial trainees went on to join the defence force and another 12,000 men and women were trained under the WESC in morse code, signalling and international code by 1945.
For her contributions to Australia, Florence was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – a Queen’s honour) in 1950. She is remembered for her contributions to the defence force since her death in 1982.
“To see every woman emancipated from the “heavy” work of the household by the aid of electricity is in itself a worthy object.”
Author: Eliza Brockwell
Eliza is the Digital Producer for Careers with STEM. Eliza is passionate about creating content that encourages diversity of representation in STEM.