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June 23, 2023

Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day with ULSE Trailblazer Frances Newell

UL Staff and CPSC members discuss television safety
Frances Newell (third from left) with staff from UL and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission discussing television safety in 1977. 

In 1973, Chicago Today ran an article noting a 42% increase in demand in the workforce for female engineering candidates with a bachelor’s degree in the field. Advertisements specifically targeting women began to appear in local newspapers, and even then, there weren’t enough candidates to fill the positions. The article noted the shift in discussion among female engineering graduates from “Have you gotten a job?” to “How many jobs have you got?”.

Someone had to lay the framework for this massive shift in the composition of our workforce, and for UL, it was Frances Newell. Although not the first female employee for our organization (that honor belongs to Nellie S. Neal, who was hired by UL founder William Henry Merrill, Jr., in 1895), Newell was one of the first female employees to join the UL engineering team as an associate engineer in 1954. Over her 23-year career with UL (including taking a few years to teach science to future female engineers), Newell would receive no less than five promotions, retiring in 1984 as managing engineer of the UL standards department, which eventually grew into UL Standards & Engagement. 

This came as no surprise to those who knew Newell personally, as she came from a long line of engineers spanning three previous generations. After she received her degree in Agricultural Engineering from Purdue University in 1950, which was unheard of at the time, she immediately entered the field at the S&C Electrical Company, eventually holding the position of draftsman (or draftswoman). 

Two notable areas that stand out over Newell’s accomplished career with our organization are her work in standards for television and laundry equipment, both of which were in the early days of production and needed Newell’s consumer-minded voice. She also applied her expertise in lighting, wiring, medical, and dental equipment, making vast improvements to safety standards in those areas. 

Toasts at Newell’s retirement celebration noted her impact in the industry, as evidenced by the substantial increase in UL standards accepted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) during her tenure.

Frances Newell
Frances Newell

Frances Newell’s legacy is not limited to her contributions in making the world a safer place, she also serves as an excellent role model for women entering the world of male-dominated workspaces. Recognizing the challenge for not only herself but also for future generations, she spent time teaching science to the next generation of female engineers and often shared inspiring words of advice to younger colleagues, including “Try hard because whatever (you) do — good or bad — it is unlikely to go unnoticed."