Many of the first women in STEM careers did not get the recognition they deserved at the time because traditional gender roles kept them out of the spotlight. Geraldine M. Hoch — or Gerry for short — was one of the earliest female STEM professionals to work for Northrop Grumman. She was a chemical engineer who invented new ways to prevent corrosion on aircraft and was a key player in Snark — a groundbreaking intercontinental cruise missile program that led to the development of one of the first digital computers and early gyroscopic and astronomical guidance systems.
“At the time, her job title was administrative staff. Today, it would probably be VP of research,” says Lynn Jenson, Project Manager and Advisor to the Board of the Western Museum of Flight.
Early Life and Career
According to her obituary, Geraldine Marie (Holm) Hoch was born on June 10, 1924 in Independence, Missouri. She was a studious child who graduated from high school at age 15, earning an award for being the best English student in her school. She was interested in math and science, although she grew up during a time when career options for women were mostly homemaker, teacher or librarian. After high school, she attended Southwest Missouri State Teacher’s College and was selected for “Who’s Who for Colleges and Universities” in 1940. She excelled in math and science and taught physics at Air Force classes at the age of 17.
After graduating with honors degrees in physics and mathematics, Gerry was hired by Bendix to work in the research and development department. She left Missouri to seek better aerospace career opportunities and headed to Los Angeles, California. She was hired by Northrop Aviation and worked alongside founder Jack Northrop. She could often be found in the laboratory and at ribbon-cutting ceremonies as part of a publicity campaign to promote the company’s efforts to recruit women during and following World War II.
She met Harry Edward Hoch, an industrial engineer, at a restaurant where employees met to carpool to work. They ended up agreeing to purchase a car together to help with the commute, and eventually they moved closer to Northrop and got married. Later, they moved back to Kansas in 1952 to start a family. Gerry took time off while she had three babies, and then she returned to work a few years after her youngest was born so she could contribute financially while her husband started a business.
Back in Kansas, she got a job at Midwest Research Institute where she worked on new materials and techniques to support the space program. She brought home samples of freeze-dried hamburger so her kids could try astronaut food, and she brought home a few laboratory mice that became her children’s pets. Although she was recognized for her professional talents, she wasn’t paid fairly. At the time, men were often paid better salaries because they were considered the default head of household. Midwest Research Institute told her that, because she was earning a secondary income for her family, she would be paid an administrative salary.
An Industry Leader
Hoch left Midwest Research Institute and was hired at Lockheed, which quadrupled her salary and hired her as a Research Scientist specializing in metallurgy. She specialized in corrosion research and helped design methods for aircraft to identify and inhibit erosion on aircraft skins to prevent catastrophic damage. Gerry and her team earned patents and received royalty checks for this invention.
“She was a key person at Lockheed in coming up with a new, innovative way to protect airliners from corrosion, and at Northrop Grumman, she likely contributed to the fuselage panels for the 747,” says Jenson. He adds, “I’m sure that we used her process in manufacturing those 747 skins, I suspect that on that program she could have also been involved with the jet propulsion.”
In an era with very limited opportunities for women in STEM, she was honored and recognized as an industry expert. In 1971, she received an invitation addressed to Mr. Geraldine Hoch that asked her to present a paper at the NATO conference. She accepted the invitation and traveled to Belgium to speak to scientists and engineers about her work.
Hoch suffered from cancer but continued to work at Lockheed while she was sick. She died on May 3, 1973 at age 48 in Los Angeles.
Diversity and Innovation
The legacy of Geraldine M. Hoch demonstrates the lasting benefits of a more inclusive workplace. As one of the first women in STEM, she contributed to aircraft manufacturing best practices such as corrosion prevention that are still in place today. Her career serves as an early example of the positive impact a diverse culture can have on the STEM fields.
“When we include [women] in these programs, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” says Jenson. “You have a synergistic effect. The more diverse you can be, the more innovative you’re going to be.”
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