Michigan Engineer Article - Irma Wyman

Irma Wyman Michigan Engineer Spring 2010

Michigan Engineer
Spring 2010

Archdeacon, Episcopal Church, Retired
Vice President, Honeywell Corporate Information Management, Retired

"I'm concerned that the number of women in engineering schools is declining. I think there's still some career-track bias. There has also been a problem with high-school guidance counselors; most of them don't know what engineering is and what its rewards are. So I'd tell a young woman interested in math or engineering to talk to successful engineers -- men and women -- who've done what she wants to do."

Irma Wyman (BSEM ENG '49) was one of the early few to experiment with a "programmable computer." She rose to become the first female vice president of Honeywell, Inc., a Fortune 100 company. She retired in 1990 and almost immediately was ordained in the Episcopal Church. After serving the last 10 years as Archdeacon of the Diocese of Minnesota, she is now fully retired.

Wyman received Michigan Engineering's 2001 Alumni Society Medal and, in 2007, an honorary doctor of engineering. Her support for the College has been ongoing; she has also endowed the Irma M. Wyman Scholarship at the University of Michigan's Center for the Education of Women to support women in engineering, computer science and related fields.

As Irma Wyman approached her high-school graduation, her parents expected her to work for a few years and then get married. They refused to consider college as a next step for her. The options for girls were to teach or be a typist or a nurse. "I didn't want to do any of those. I wanted to go on to college, but my parents were unyielding until, a few months before I graduated from high school, I was awarded a Regents Scholarship to Michigan. I had little time to select a major, but math and science were my strengths, so I opted for engineering. The limits of my scholarship meant I had to do five years' work in four years. Lectures and labs went from 7 a.m. to evening. I worked as switchboard operator and waitress in my dorm to cover expenses, and later worked in a research lab. I enjoyed football games, and I ushered at Hill Auditorium to hear concerts for free, but I didn't have much time to myself."

In creating the Irma M. Wyman Scholarship, Wyman reflected on the impact that her Regents Scholarship had on her life. "My engineering education opened the world for me, preparing me for a career in a field that didn't exist before I graduated. But I learned that women need support in technical studies both financially and personally."

Although VJ Day had come in August of '45, there were still few men on campus in 1945 when Michigan Engineering admitted Irma Wyman and several other women to its freshman class. Several of the faculty made it clear to Irma that no matter what her test scores were, they wouldn't pass her because they didn't think women should be engineers. The dean of women wrote to her mother, saying it was totally inappropriate for Wyman to study engineering. It all made Wyman more determined to succeed – it was the kind of drive that would define her life.

In 1946, Wyman said, there was "a flood of returning veterans -- they almost overwhelmed the place. The College didn't admit any women that year. Women who had been accommodated in men's housing had to double or triple up in women's dorms. Classes were large, and comments were made to me like, 'How come you're occupying a seat when one of our veterans could be here?' I qualified academically for Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, but since they only accepted men they gave me an honorary membership. It wasn't a good climate for women."

As a junior, Wyman was working at the Willow Run Research Center on a missile guidance project. "We did trajectory integrations using a mechanical calculator. My boss asked me to visit a Navy research facility working on shell trajectories. I found that they were working with a prototype programmable computer from Harvard. I learned everything I could about it and about all the other prototypes in labs across the country. I became an enthusiastic pioneer in this new technology and it led to my life's career."

When Wyman graduated, there were few jobs in industry for engineers and almost none for women engineers. She continued in research, then joined an early entrepreneurial start-up that was acquired by Honeywell, Inc., where she completed her career.

"I learned about leadership and management as I went along," she said. "You need vision. You must be clear and confident and focused and able to build trust. You need to listen and be respectful of feedback. And you have to be secure enough to recognize that the feedback might change your plans."

As a woman in engineering at a time when gender was a major issue, Wyman confronted a number of obstacles. And although things have changed, she still sees inequities. "If there are to be more women in engineering, we need to remove more obstacles. I admire the University's Center for the Education of Women -- they make a real effort to support and encourage women in the technical fields, and they've made an enormous difference in many lives."

These days Wyman is retired from engineering and from the church, but she fiddles with puzzles, origami, writing and "community projects that accomplish something useful and lasting." She also stays in touch with the many women who have been Wyman Scholars over the years, celebrating their accomplishments and rejoicing in their rich lives. "That scholarship has been the best investment I've ever made," she said. "The returns have been so rich and satisfying to me, to the scholars and to the University."

- Michigan Engineer Spring 2010 (College of Engineering)