Director, Women in Science & Engineering Program
Cinda-Sue Davis has developed a number of innovative programs: Summer Science for Girls, a residential hands-on summer program for middle-school girls, Science for Life, a high-school internship program in biomedical sciences, and the Marian Sarah Parker Scholars Program, an undergraduate program that encourages high-achieving women engineering students to pursue graduate degrees. In 1987 she hosted the Gender and Science and Technology Conference as well as the first national Women in Science & Engineering Conference. She has authored numerous papers on issues facing women in engineering and frequently gives presentations on those topics.
Davis feels that a basic issue she faces is that people -- women and men -- don't know how wonderful engineering is. When they find out how it impacts the world in medicine, manufacturing, media and entertainment, to name just a handful of areas, people see how they can make a difference in the world. "Women and men want to be in positions that help people, and engineering will allow them to do that. But women more so than men don't know enough about engineering. They don't know about materials science, for example, and how it made a difference with the simplest of things like pins and rubber bands. U-M is famous for testing the Salk vaccine. But not many are aware of what it takes to synthesize it in large enough amounts, then transport and store it. Engineers make those kinds of things possible. From what I see, young girls don't think of those things. They think that engineers make cars."
Young women, Davis feels, need to develop skills early on. "High schools, even elementary schools, need to play up engineering. If girls are interested in science and math, for example, we have to let them know that engineering requires those disciplines, but it's more about problem-solving and helping people than it is about doing pure math and science."
Leadership is also an important point for Davis. "Women have a history as leaders," she said. "And those who have leadership qualities tend to be more independent than men. But there are some things that women, even those with leadership qualities, need to unlearn, things that can and often are perceived as negatives. Some women have different speaking patterns, for example. A woman's voice often lifts at the end of sentences, which gives a questioning sound and can create a perception that she isn't confident, whereas that might be the farthest thing from the truth. Women walk a fine line: Sometimes, if they talk like men, they're considered dragon ladies, but if they talk like women, they give the impression of being weak. Our women engineers are anything but weak; they're strong, highly competent professionals who've leveled the playing field."
Other than making people's lives better, there are many reasons people should go into engineering. "Good-paying jobs, for one thing," Davis said. "It's the new liberal-arts degree -- you can do anything with i -- medicine, law, business. There's no better preparation for a career than engineering. It forces students to know science and math, to become communicators and think of society's needs. But there's no single way to communicate that fact.
"Age makes a difference in how I explain engineering and its attraction. I'd give different advice to young women in high school than I would to those who are older. We also target our programs differently. We hold camps and workshops, do program planning and grant writing -- we try to reach all sorts of girls. Unfortunately, since the passage of Proposal 2, public colleges and universities in Michigan have lost the use of a powerful recruiting tool for women students -- gender-specific scholarships. We think that we're losing women students to out-of-state and private universities who can still provide scholarships for women."