Build a thriving engineering community!

By Ruth Davis

Ruth Davis

Ruth Davis

I grew up loving Mathematics. I’m one of those rare “new math” successes. I learned set theory in fourth grade and found it much more exciting than multiplication tables. It was interesting, easy for me, and difficult for others so it made me feel special. I came late to computer science, in spite of the fact that I had won an essay contest in high school claiming “My Goal in Ten Years” was to be a computer programmer. There were too many other exciting things going on in college, so I didn’t take my first programming class until I was working on a master’s degree in Mathematics. Fortran IV, on punched cards, was my introduction to “Computer Science.” I was appalled. How DARE they call this a science? I wanted nothing to do with it.

Later I “accidentally” took a course that introduced me to Lisp, and suddenly I saw the beauty, elegance, and yes, science of the field. I decided to go on and get a PhD in Computer Science.

It was while working on my PhD that I became aware of gender issues. Somehow, I never noticed before. Now I saw that my thesis advisor, a woman, suffered from the attitudes of the other faculty in the department (all male). When I submitted my dissertation for review by the ACM Doctoral Forum Award committee, I used my first initial instead of my name in order to eliminate gender from consideration. They were quite shocked to learn I was female when they called to tell me I had won. (They would not be surprised again. The following year the rules were changed to require a recommendation letter from the advisor in addition to the thesis itself.)

My first academic job after completing my degree was at Santa Clara University’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I was not only the first female tenure track hire in the department, but the only one in the entire school of engineering. Another woman, Lee Hornberger, was a part-time lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. She introduced me to the Society of Women Engineers and to programs she started to encourage young women to study engineering. I became involved in every opportunity to promote STEM to young women and girls.
I met Anita Borg at the 1997 Grace Hopper Conference. I had a sabbatical coming up, and offered my services in any capacity to help get more women involved in Computing. We ran innovation workshops that brought women from various communities together to brainstorm about technologies that could improve our lives. I was thrilled to see the reaction of women who considered themselves technophobes. They were so empowered by the notion that they were capable of imagining technological improvements. I’m sure they had a tremendous impact on their daughters and nieces, and neighbors. It is this multiplying of efforts that eventually can make a huge difference.

We then created a partnership of universities called the Virtual Development Center, which supported students implementing some of the ideas coming from the innovation workshops. My experience with the VDC showed that women students were very interested in community-based projects. I created the infrastructure and a course to support more such projects. I believe the availability of such project opportunities helps retain young women in engineering, and these projects educate the community about engineering, encouraging more young people who may not have thought about engineering to consider pursuing it.
I am proud to say that my engineering school, in which I was so alone at the beginning, now has one of the highest percentages of women faculty in the nation. We have been #1 for many of the last ten years, but this year we dropped to #3, because two more schools have high percentages of women faculty (30-37%), and now seven schools have over 25%.

There are many opportunities for you to actively encourage young women and girls. There are programs for elementary, middle school, high school, and beyond. You can visit individual classrooms or participate in organized events, like the Sally Ride Science Fairs, the National Girls Collaborative Project events, or local programs like our SWE co-sponsored program GetSET, or our local student section’s involvement with GAINS (Girls Achieving In Nontraditional Subjects). It may seem that your efforts are small, but every little bit helps, and every girl you inspire may go on to inspire others.

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