Ellen Weaver immediately took to technology when she was a girl.
“It all started with the Atari 2600,” remembers Weaver, now in her early 40s. “Then we got a Commodore 64, and I could write and play games with my siblings.”
Weaver, now an IT manager at CUNA Mutual Group, found her way into a technology career despite rigid gender roles that continue to this day. “This all happened at home,” Weaver says. “Back then there was no one in school encouraging me to learn about technology.”
American culture continues to cling to antiquated notions concerning gender-appropriate interests for young people. As a result, there remains a depressing male/female imbalance in careers related to STEM.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Those areas traditionally skew male, the result of generations of cultural norms that push boys towards LEGO and girls towards... LEGO hair salons and shopping malls.
That is changing. It’s widely recognized that these are the “fields of the future,” fulfilling critical needs for the next generation of Americans. In February 2013, President Barack Obama announced a program to assist educators in getting more girls interested in STEM careers. “We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent...not being encouraged the way they need to,” Obama said.
Despite this presidential push, Wisconsin women continue to lag behind their male counterparts in STEM at advanced levels, according to the 2014 Status of Girls in Wisconsin report by the Alverno College Research Center for Women and Girls.
“Unfortunately, with societal standards and expectations, young girls tend to avoid STEM-related careers,” says Katie Cook of UW-Madison’s Society of Women Engineers. “This is upsetting to me, a female undergraduate at UW-Madison. When I was in elementary school, engineering was not even on my radar for a dream job. But once I took a design and construction class in middle school, I was hooked. Young girls do not know that topics like thermodynamics, fluids and circuits even exist, but once they simply ask ‘how does that work?’ or ‘why does that happen?’ they may become fascinated. It really depends on what career resources a child has when growing up.”
It will take a sustained effort to unbend the warping of gender expectations. But in Madison, corrections are under way.
Many girls feel more encouraged to pursue a degree in engineering after attending Engineering Tomorrow’s Careers Summer Camp, Cook says. This weeklong camp, which just wrapped up, is organized by two members of the UW-Madison Society of Women Engineers. It puts 80 high school girls together with professors from the College of Engineering and STEM-related company representatives, who discuss their experiences.
“At camp, being surrounded by other girls and looking up to successful female engineering students makes engineering look more realistic,” Cook says.
And Madison resident Kacie Conroy will be hosting a forum at the UW-Whitewater Cybergirlz tech camp, a free day camp for sixth, seventh and eighth grade girls on July 22. “The camp gives middle school girls the ability to see what IT actually is and understand all the great career opportunities,” she says. “We see a nearly 75% spike in interest just by having a one-hour conversation.”
Beyond summer programs, the UW Precollege Program operates year-round. It offers field trips and after-school programs — a search function helps people find specific programs they’re looking for.
At Edgewood College, STEM is the watchword for Pathways to Satisfaction: A Girls Journey, which concentrates on putting high-risk females on track for a post-secondary education.
The Kennedy Heights Girls Inc. Operation SMART program operates various after-school programs for girls — with a special focus on low- and middle-income girls — each tackling a different area of STEM.