Ada Pressman (1927-2003) was a trailblazer in her field. Not only did she advance the concept of engineering as a profession for women, empowering others to join, but she was recognized as one of the U.S.’s outstanding experts in power plant controls and process instrumentation.
As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day today, we’re highlighting Ada Pressman, an inspiration for all women in engineering.
In 1952, 52, or 0.17%, of U.S. Bachelor of Science degrees in engineering went to women. Two years before, Ada graduated from Ohio State University with a mechanical engineering degree.
In 1969 and 1972, she earned her certificates in accounting and business, respectively, before acquiring an MBA from Golden Gate University in 1974.
Ada spent her career at Bechtel, starting in 1955 as a power control systems engineer and climbing the ranks until becoming an engineering manager in 1979, a position she held until her retirement in 1987. During her tenure, she managed 18 design teams for over 20 power generating plants globally, and she specialized in developing emergency safety systems for fossil-fired and nuclear power plants.
Over her 32-year career, Ada played an integral role in the establishment of her discipline by becoming the first person to obtain a California Professional Registration in Control Systems Engineering.
She was considered a pioneer in combustion controls and burner management in supercritical power plants, directing the design of 18 control systems for a 900 megawatt (MW) power plant with the first water reactor built in an area remote from a major body of water.
Additionally, she helped develop the control engineering requirements for four 450MW supercritical oil- and gas-fired steam generators by devising techniques for placing the controls in service and tuning and testing the plant for rapid load changes under service conditions previously unattainable by industry.
Characterized as a quiet leader, Ada received several honors throughout her career, including being named Engineer of the Year by the Long Beach Engineering Council and a Fellow of the Institute for the Advancement of Engineering. She was also honored with Ohio State’s Distinguished Alumni award and Bechtel’s Outstanding Engineering Merit award. Highly involved in several engineering organizations, Ada was the first woman to serve as an Instrument Society of America (ISA) section leader. She went on to serve as an ISA vice president from 1973-1978.
Supporting women engineers
Ada Pressman (left) and a Bechtel colleague visit a jobsite.
Alongside her engineering career, Ada made it her life mission to support and empower women in engineering following her own experience as one of few. “The growing number of women engineers will also act as role models providing incentive and motivation to young female engineers,” Ada said in an interview with Graduate Engineer magazine.
She joined the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in 1954, at the beginning of her own career, becoming a senior member by 1961. She soon made her way into the ranks of SWE leadership, with her first role as Los Angeles Section Representative from 1969-1970. Nine years later, she was elected as the organization’s 1979-1980 president.
During her presidency, Ada focused on the Equal Rights Amendment, which protects equal legal rights regardless of gender. Additionally, she selected the first recipients of the New Distinguished Engineers award.
In 1983, Ada was named a SWE Fellow and was elected to the Board of Trustees, a position she retained until her death in 2003.
Ada’s influence remains with her endowment through the Ada I Pressman Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship awards $5,000 to nine female engineering students each year, renewable up to five years.
A 1975 issue of Bechtel’s in-house newspaper featured Ada Pressman and her colleagues
offering advice to female students interested in engineering.