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D'Arbeloff Discusses Her Life And Defiance of Gender Roles

By Steve Hoberman

No one can accuse Brit D'Arbeloff SM '61 of holding back.

As the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree from Stanford University, she pursued careers in the space, heating, and retail industries, and raised four children.

As this year's third Department of Mechanical Engineering Distinguished Alumni Lecturer, she gave a lively but unblinking account of the challenges facing female engineers.

Gender was an obstacle throughout her career, including her college and graduate years. "I chose a man's field when there were few women in it," D'Arbeloff recalled. "Many of the practices when I started are now illegal." Despite the fact that she was first in her class at Stanford, D'Arbeloff was frustrated by the failure of so many in her field to take women seriously or respect their ideas. "Finding a job was hell," she said.

D'Arbeloff faced gender bias

D'Arbeloff grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a Swedish engineer with over five hundred patents. "My father was not a talker he was a thinker and a doer," D'Arbeloff said.

Her parents discouraged her from pursuing a liberal arts education, worrying that it would not provide her with the necessary job skills. D'Arbeloff felt her options were "to be an engineer or a teacher." Uninterested in teaching, she decided to major in engineering at college, and received her degree in 1957. "Stanford was wonderful," she said.

After college, she began to work with rockets. Unfortunately, there was little progress and even less money. However, the 1957 launch of the Russian spaceship Sputnik changed the industry. Panic about American inferiority in space-age technology flooded the defense industry with money. "The space industry came to my rescue" she said.

D'Arbeloff then left for graduate school at MIT to work in the field of heat transfer. Attitudes toward women were not much better than those in the workplace. "I was unable to find [academic guidance] here," she said.

After completing her graduate degreein 1961, D'Arbeloff worked for over ten years in the heating industry. "We were the experts in heat transfer," she recalled. "But it was frustrating when all those formulas I learned to faithfully in school didn't work."

She then took time off to raise her children. During this time, she wrote five yet-unpublished novels and enjoyed the adventures of childrearing. "Every one of our children was an individual from day one," she said. "One had the ability to swallow yellow veggies but not green."

She returned to work in 1983 as a systems analyst. "Programming was the nearest thing to instant gratification I ever experienced," she joked.

D'Arbeloff then moved into the retail industry as a part-owner in a clothing store. Now retired, she lives with her husband, Alexander V. D'Arbeloff '59, who serves as Chairman of the Corporation. Although progress has been made with women in science and technology, D'Arbeloff is still adamant about the need to open the field to more women. "We must inspire them or we will lose them," she said.