Irene Peden (ElEngr'47) looked out across the frozen landscape. She had made it: Antarctica.
Obstacle after obstacle had been placed in front of her, but she had become the first woman to live and conduct scientific research in the Antarctic interior as a principal investigator
“The Navy really didn’t want to take me. They put up a real fight,” said Peden, now 92, from her home in downtown Seattle.
She was well qualified to work on the continent at the bottom of the world, had support from her colleagues, and had financial backing for her research. The only issue was her gender.
The trip in 1970 came one year after a total ban on American women traveling to the icy continent had been lifted, but it didn’t make getting there any easier. At the time, the Navy provided the only transportation, and they weren’t interested in taking her.
Pushback was nothing new to Peden, who throughout her career became a trailblazer for women in engineering. Her drive to succeed was instilled from a young age.
“My mother was my role model. She would say if you want to do something badly enough, you can just do it,” Peden said.
A simple mantra, but an effective one. It brought her to CU Boulder, where she earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1947. She was one of just a handful of female students. While treated well overall, Peden still faced situations that would be considered jaw-dropping today.
“When I graduated, a professor said to me, ‘Irene, now you have your degree. You will be very valuable as a secretary to an engineer,’” she said. “I really think he saw it as good mentoring advice.”
You will be very valuable as a secretary to an engineer.
Peden would go on to Stanford University to earn a master’s and PhD in electrical engineering. Her graduation came with a major distinction—she was the first woman in Stanford history to earn a PhD in any engineering subject. Surprisingly, the achievement went unnoticed at the time.
“I got a call from a Stanford female engineering student years later. She had questions about some subject, and they gave her my name as a contact. She was the one who told me. I was quite surprised,” Peden said. “I knew there weren’t any other women in my graduating group of PhDs, but I didn’t know there had never been any.”
After graduation, she was hired by the University of Washington in Seattle—its first female engineering professor. At UW, her research focused on antennas and the propagation of radio signals in polar regions, and she developed new ways to measure the electromagnetic properties of the ice.
It was standard policy at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that principal investigators with Antarctic grants had to do some of their work in person to fully understand how harsh the conditions were and how simple the fieldwork needed to be. When the rule prohibiting women was lifted, NSF wanted Peden to go.
They worked with her until the Navy finally gave its OK—with one condition. Peden would need to have a female companion. She could not be the only woman on the trip.
As the date for her flight loomed closer, NSF found a New Zealand researcher to join her. They both would need to pass a physical but were otherwise cleared. Peden passed. The other woman did not.
The day of departure came and NSF still hadn’t found a replacement—until they discovered a loophole.
NSF noted that the Navy required a second woman to join Peden but hadn’t said that person needed to be a scientist. Passing the physical was the only rule. NSF employees in Christchurch turned to a local mountain climbing club and found who they were looking for.
“She was in excellent physical condition and could make the last-minute trip. Her husband was also a scientist who had been to Antarctica, so she had some awareness,” Peden said.
The military pushback is perhaps unsurprising, considering the era, but what makes it truly noteworthy is that Peden was not the first woman to go to Antarctica, nor the first to need Navy transportation. Shortly after the ban on women was lifted in 1969, four female scientists from Ohio conducted research on the Antarctic coast. The Navy was disappointed that the results had not been published yet, so Peden was warned they would be watching her with eagle eyes. If they were disappointed again, it would be a “generation” before another woman would follow behind her.
It was an unfair burden for her to carry, but she passed every test, spending a month on the ground, enjoying 24-hour daylight and minus 50 C temperatures. She was able to successfully measure the propagation of very low frequency radio waves through the more than 2-kilometer-thick permafrost and to publish the results of her work in a timely fashion after returning.
Her career would continue to focus on environmental applications, and for her successes, Peden earned the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, their highest distinction, and was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She would also go on to serve in leadership roles at UW, as an associate dean of their College of Engineering, and to direct the NSF’s Division of Electrical and Communications Systems for several years.
In 1993, she was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an engineer. The academy recognized her “for leadership in engineering education, in antennas and propagation and contributions to radio science in the polar region.”
These days, Peden is fully retired, but she’s not disconnected.
“I do a lot of reading. Most of it’s for pleasure, but I also receive journals and read articles,” she said. “I’m still very interested in the field.”