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Brit d'Arbeloff details her journey

Brit J. d'Arbeloff (SM 1961) skipped the sugar, set fire to the spice and set the whole notion of 'nice' on its ear in a February 18 talk on the treatment of women in engineering during her days as a student and today.

Ms. d'Arbeloff's witty, provocative and uncompromising presentation, "Girls from the LA Office: Women in Technology," was the third of this year's Distinguished Alumni/ae Lectures. A lively question-and-answer session followed her talk.

Ms. d'Arbeloff, who was the first woman to receive an engineering degree from Stanford, credited Professor Nam Pyo Suh, head of the department of mechanical engineering, for her place at the podium.

"We all know that Nam is a man of many virtues, and perseverance is one of them. When he spoke of the need for mechanical engineering to attract and retain more women, I realized I might be able to provide insight," she said.

"I was a pioneer. I look forward to the time when pioneering does not mean 'first woman to head a department' [or] 'first woman to win the blah blah prize.' Let us all be dedicated to pulling down artificial barriers to entry. Refocus the energy that women spend trying to be heard and accepted to making advances in technology. That is where the pioneering effort should lie," she declared to the group of 50 faculty and students assembled in Rm 1-390.

Ms. d'Arbeloff opened her talk by describing how her father, a "holder of 500 patents, including the Mixmaster," laughed out loud when she told him she was going to study engineering.

"How can I fault him? He began an entire industry. However, there were a lot of false starts coming out of his design efforts. Maybe if he had actually boiled a few eggs himself, he would not have come up with the egg cooker which created eggs of super-ball consistency," she said.

She proceeded through the stages of her "interesting, staggeringly varied" life, including the years of study at Stanford and at MIT, work, marriage (she is married to Alexander V. d'Arbeloff, chairman of MIT Corporation and of Teradyne, Inc.), motherhood and return to work.

Ms. d'Arbeloff's father was not alone in his view of women in engineering, and, although she expressed enthusiasm for her courses at Stanford, she was reserved in her praise for the MIT of 38 years ago.

As a graduate student in mechanical engineering, "I needed a guide and I needed a cohort. I was unable to find either one here. The lab was not a place for a lady engineer... If I had been able to find a sponsor for a research-based thesis, I would have had a very different MIT experience," she said.


Ms. d'Arbeloff's first job search was frustrated by biases against women engineers ("many of the attitudes I had to overcome when I started are now illegal," she noted), but was aided by the fledgling space race.

"Our space industry came to my rescue" in the form of a job designing the nose cone of the Redstone Missile, she said, describing this project as part of a "crude, monumentally expensive, tentative foray."

Ms. d'Arbeloff, who has written five novels, revealed wit and an author's sense of the power of detail as she described life inside the ultra-masculine world of rocketry and space-racing.

"I was not allowed entry into the secret area where all the plans were laid out... except for the two hours or so during lunchtime when we played duplicate bridge using the top-secret plans as covers for the bridge tables," she reported, to general laughter.

Ms. d'Arbeloff also used domestic similes to siphon the aura of mystery from the engineering work she actually encountered: "The [rocket] recovery system was simple. Surrounding the cone, peppered into the surface like seeds in a strawberry, were a bunch of little aluminum garbage cans with covers containing the brake chutes. These cans were between a tall kitchen container and a standard trash barrel in size."


"Parenthood was a liberating eye-opener. I found that babies were infinitely more interesting than they had been given credit for," Ms. d'Arbeloff said. "Every one of our four was an individual from day one.''

She returned to work when her youngest child was three. "I was beginning to suffer from advanced brain rot," she recalled. In a caveat to mothers, she added, "If I had realized how stressful it was to re-enter the market after nearly 10 years out of the field, I would have made more of an effort to continue working."

Ms. d'Arbeloff went into software programming, "the nearest thing to instant gratification I had ever experienced," she recalled. Jobs at companies including Digital Equipment Corp. and Teradyne were followed by five years in fashion retail, as an owner of Charles Sumner, a boutique on Newbury Street in Boston.

She eventually left retailing to write fiction -- work that, surprisingly, offers "the same total-immersion quality as programming."

Ms. d'Arbeloff challenged her audience to confront the questions she had confronted and lived with as a woman in engineering. "Many of the problems facing our world today either have a technological solution or could be improved with better technology. We have onlybegun to attract women to technical fields. How do we make sure they stay once they are educated?" she said.

In answer to quizzical looks and outright questions, Ms. d'Arbeloff revealed the source of the title she chose for her Distinguished Alumni/ae Lecture. It arose from her personal experience when, at engineers' trade shows, salesmen would ignore her in favor of "real" (i.e., male) customers.

"'You girls from the LA office?' they would say before interrupting me and turning to a male who had wandered in," she recalled.

In a question-and-answer session that focused attention on how gender roles and gender biases may change in the future, Elizabeth M. Drake, associate director of the Energy Laboratory, asked how the d'Arbeloff children were shaped by their mother's views and experiences. "They all got alarm clocks when they started school. And they can cook and clean if they want," she replied.

At the suggestion of Professor Alexander Slocum (the Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff Professor of Mechanical Engineering), a survey of women MIT students in the room closed the event on a positive note: each one had plans to pursue an advanced degree in engineering or was already employed in the field.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 24, 1999.

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