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HFES Bulletin

June 2014
Volume 57, Number 6

Inside HFES

Top Girl

By Francis T. Durso, President

In 1943, Gloria Indus Lauer is a 17-year-old girl about to graduate from high school in Ames, Iowa. The world has been bonkers for a couple of years now. The war has changed everything. The pennies are made of steel. Frankfurters are gone, replaced with victory sausages that just aren't as good. They've even banned presliced bread to save on metal, but it doesn't matter so much now that they're rationing bread too. There has been a lot of new rationing this year. A year Donna Tartt captures with "weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed."

Gloria, like other teens, does her bit and holds onto the idea that really, there's lots to be happy about. That new guy, Frank Sinatra, who premiered on "Your Hit Parade" last Saturday, sounded like a dreamboat. Then there was that new Mickey Rooney movie, Girl Crazy. That was a gas. Sure, you know some girls who aren't rationed can get khaki whacki, but Holy Mackerel!

So, there are good things to keep you hoping in 1943 America. You notice a lot of people seem to be putting their hope in science. Looking toward science just seems part of what you hear everywhere. Maybe it helps us win the war and make the world a better place. Gloria's dad, a professor at the university (and for whom the HFES Safety Award is named), believes it. Her teachers believe it too. So does the government. Last year it started a "Search for Science Talent," and Gloria is going to compete this year.

"The second annual Science Talent Search began last November when some 25,000 school principals and teachers were asked to cooperate in finding the graduating seniors—both boys and girls—who appeared most likely to succeed as scientists" (Science, 1943; dashes in the original). From 15,000 seniors, the field was reduced to 40 finalists.

Gloria went on to win that competition (. . .well, win the girl part, anyway), taking "Top Girl." Her counterpart, Reinhart Schiffhaeur (competing under the nom de guerre Ray Schiff) appears with Gloria in the accompanying photo. Each walked away with a $2,400 scholarship (about $32,000 today). Currently, that competition, the Intel Search for Science Talent, is arguably the world's most prestigious science fair. Today there is only one winner; women have claimed it recently about a third of the time.

Gloria Lauer with Ray Schiff after winning "Top Girl" and "Top Boy" in the second annual Search for Science Talent, 1943.

Sure, Gloria won a national award in science, but after all, back then it was just the girl category. Would she finish college in a timely fashion and apply to graduate school? Let's leap ahead to 1948 and see if Gloria is applying to graduate school. Actually, no. She already has her PhD by 1948! Lest you think I mistyped, I'll repeat myself. Five years after she graduated high school, Gloria was awarded a doctorate from Columbia University. In those 60 months, Gloria joined the Tri-Delts, married Harry Grace, earned a BA (2 years), and a master's (1 year) from Ohio State University, and by the middle of 1948, she was Dr. Grace.

Dr. Grace went on to work for SDC–Systems Development Corporation–in what is now recognized as the epicenter of human factors, Santa Monica, California. SDC has been called the world's first computer software company. During the Cold War, SDC began as RAND Corporation's systems engineering group for the U.S. military.

Now, there are probably more difficult tasks than tracing the work of someone who was employed at SDC during the Cold War. Indeed, when I talked to contemporaries of Gloria's, I had no impression that she spoke freely about the work she was doing. Self-aggrandizement did not seem to be her way. Eventually, SDC morphed into Unisys, Lockheed Martin, and L-3 Communications. Hardware jocks may remember "the Burroughs" or UNIVAC. For the rest of us, if you think that timesharing, multiple users, intercomputer communications, and e-mail are important contributions to our lifestyle today, thank SDC.

Gloria Lauer Grace also went on to become the first woman president of the Human Factors Society. She was elected in 1978. It would be another 15 years before our second woman president, Deborah A. Boehm-Davis, would take office. Throughout the history of the Society, only six women have served as president: Betty M. Sanders, Wendy A. Rogers, Kathleen L. Mosier, and Mica R. Endsley, in addition to Debbie and Gloria.

In the middle of the last century, it wasn't easy for women to be recognized for their science abilities and to advance to a position of respect and authority as Gloria did. Frankly, it doesn't look all that easy today either. Only a half dozen women presidents? I learned while researching the last installment of this series ("Whirly Girl," February 2014 Bulletin) that only 10% of the HFES Fellows are women, even though 35% of the membership is female ("Finding Eve," December 2013 Bulletin). Our discipline is not alone in this gender gap. The STEM initiatives highlight this same concern throughout the sciences and engineering. We're not alone, but we could take a lead in correcting it.

As bright as Gloria was, she also had the humor and love of people to make a great president. The figure shows her sporting with Dick Pew while Fred Muckler looks on.

What would we do with Gloria today? How could we draw her into our discipline, nurture her, and give her what she would need to excel? If a Gloria were at the Annual Meeting in Chicago this October, how would we know? And if we did know, what would we do? HFES does ask these questions. The Society has a committee to engage young professionals and facilitate their transition into the discipline and the Society. HFES also has initiatives to encourage students and introduce them to human factors engineering and engineering psychology.

If we look at our membership, at the student level, about half (51%) are women. Our transitional composition drops a little, with 46% of those with bachelor's or master's being women. However, transitional membership with a doctorate drops to 31% women and becomes 28% when we look at Full Members with doctorates. Between student and doctorate the percentage of women goes from 51% to 28%. The Society tracks this information and continues with its recruitment and retention efforts.

But perhaps we, as individuals, can do more. I'd like to encourage you to try something. This October, reach out to a few young people before they commit to a career. Take a graduate student or the new member of your company and talk about the value of completing the doctorate and the value of joining HFES. You might contact your local high school and offer to speak to a science class. If you are at a university, hold a meeting for the new students in your major. Give a lecture, show a PowerPoint, or just talk about the discipline of human factors. Who knows? Maybe five years from now, one of them will be a new PhD ready to join us for the 2019 Annual Meeting.

Many thanks to Lynn "Woodward & Bernstein" Strother for providing the research assistance and archival information that made this story possible.

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