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Women sought as engineers

Universities hope to promote the profession and dent gender gap

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Sharon Davis usually doesn't feel like an oddity in her University of Utah classes.

Yet Davis was the only student in her mechanical engineering class who had used the product on the lab dissection table — a sewing machine.

Davis found herself in the situation of many female students at the U. who are often the sole woman in an engineering class. At the U., only about 12 percent of undergraduate engineering students are women.

"I think there are a lot of people that encourage it, but there still is a stigma against it," said Davis, who is now earning a master's degree in mechanical engineering after receiving a bachelor's in bioengineering. "Some girls think it's not acceptable to be smart or guys aren't going to want to date somebody smart."

University leaders in Utah are trying to change that stigma, recruiting more women into high-demand fields like engineering and science where women have historically been underrepresented.

With a $1.2 million state engineering initiative in its final year, university leaders are hoping the state investment makes a dent in the gender gap. If it doesn't, the state's crop of future engineers will be missing a unique female perspective, said JoAnn Lighty, a chemical engineering professor at the U.

At the U., only 208 of the 2,000 undergraduate pre-majors and official engineering majors are women. That 12 percent figure is down from the 2001-2002 school year, when women made up 15 percent of the engineering student body.

The numbers are similar at Utah State University, the state's second largest research institution. Female students only make up 10 percent of the engineering department, about half of the national average of 20 percent.

"Engineers are the people who design the human-made world. Whether that's your cell phone or your heart defibrillator, there's an engineer in the loop," said Christine Hailey, associate dean of the college of engineering at USU. "If you recruit only one kind of person, you have less creative design solutions than if you recruit a spectrum of people."

But engineering remains a hard sale for women who don't think the field jibes with a balanced family life, Hailey said. Perhaps even more of an obstacle, women simply don't know what engineers do.

"We don't do a very good job of promoting the profession," Hailey said. "We don't have the equivalent of 'E.R.' or 'CSI' on TV. Maybe with the exception of 'Apollo 13,' we're not people who like to be in the media, male or female."

That underexposure is stumbling block for many women who want a career involving math and science. Particularly in mechanical engineering, women tend to think of building things as men's work, Lighty said.

More women, for example, gravitate towards bioengineering because they can see the direct benefits of how inventing new medical devices can help people. Those societal benefits are often less obvious in a mechanical field.

At the U., only 12 of 215 mechanical engineering majors are women.

"We need to sell engineering as a creative career. We build things and that requires not only knowledge, but creativity," Lighty said. "It's not just about numbers, it's about wanting to solve problems elegantly. This is how we can stay competitive in the world."

To lure more women into engineering, Lighty said U. leaders are working to hook young women while they are in high school, if not sooner. Summer camps with hands-on experiments teach girls what engineering is and exactly what courses they need to take in high school to get into the major in college.

Without a substantial core of science and math classes in high school, Lighty said female students are often too intimidated once they get to college to jump into an engineering major.

The pre-college programs also let girls build relationships with faculty. For Davis, that encouragement was missing when she decided to graduate high school early to get a head start on her engineering program.

"When I told my counselor that I was going to go into engineering, he said, 'That would be a waste of your money. Why don't you just get a boyfriend and stay in high school another year?' " Davis said.

Once she got to college, however, Davis found support as part of a special science and engineering program at the U. Davis spent eight weeks before her freshman year learning about engineering, meeting other female students and getting to know the female faculty.

Recruiting those women faculty to be mentors is also key to enticing more girls into engineering, Hailey added. Without being able to see successful engineering women, the next generation of female engineers may get discouraged and fall away, she said.

Three female professors who were added to USU's engineering faculty recently as part of the statewide engineering initiative have been women. While that only brings the total to six, or about 6 percent of the faculty, Hailey said it's a start.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com