New Careers for Mid-Life Women

By the time you read this, I will have turned the big “Five-O” on September 7th. 

As I mull over the new and great things I’d like to achieve in my fifties and beyond, I think about women who I look up to who just got going in their later years.  Cesária Évora, 70, one of my favorite singers, from Cape Verde, Africa, only launched her international career at age 47. Carmen Lamha, my co-Principal Investigator for the CalWomenTech Project, received her Master’s in Instructional Technology at age 49, and has talked of continuing on to get her PhD at 51.

I also think back to the 50 year-old woman — mother of five and on welfare — who attended a career development course I taught in the early 1980’s. A woman full of life, hope and courage, she decided to become a painter and became the first female to be admitted into the painter’s union apprenticeship program in Washington, DC.

For women, sometimes our greatest career accomplishments come at mid-life — after we’ve married or divorced, raised a family, or perhaps immigrated to the U.S.  And sometimes women embark on new careers only after they recognize the difficulty of making ends meet on the salary of the traditionally female jobs they’ve been working in for years.  

Older women often turn to community colleges to jumpstart their careers, so it’s important that educators send a message to these students in particular that all careers, including those in technology, are accessible to them.

For example, our Women in Construction Technology banner shows mid-life female role models.

Remember, everything that’s true about women in technology careers is multiplied three-fold for older women in the workplace: the need for help with building block skills, support, and encouragement.

In that vein, American Association of Community Colleges has developed a Plus 50 Initiative that “benchmarks and showcase the most current and innovative programs at community colleges to engage the 50+ learner”.  The website offers educators a variety of resources, including publications, webinars, practical tips, and more.

If you have any of your own resources or tips to share on mid-life women and technology careers, please feel free to post them here.  And for a humorous take on the challenges of a woman returning to the workforce after 30 years, this video is definitely worth a look.

The Power of Three Female Supreme Court Justices

I am in high spirits because on August 7, Elena Kagan was sworn in as our fourth female Supreme Court Justice – bringing the number of women currently sitting on the bench to three.

Elena Kagan, third sitting female Supreme Court Justice

Elena Kagan, third sitting female Supreme Court Justice

I was fortunate enough to meet the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor in 1990, when I was doing a Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy on Capitol Hill. I remembered I asked her how it was to be the only female on the Supreme Court and she told me that it was fine, though it would be nice to have another woman Justice. 

In 1994, I met the second female Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, shortly after she was sworn in.  I told her that I knew Justice O’Connor was happy to have some female company on the court. Indeed in 2007 when Justice Ginsburg was the sole female, she told USA Today that she was “lonely” after O’Connor’s retirement. 

Why is three women sitting on the Supreme Court Bench significant?  For one thing, according to the US Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Supreme Court Justice” is no longer a non-traditional job for a woman (the threshold is 25%.) According to the sociological literature on “tokenism”, 25% is the tipping point for when a minority no longer is a minority.  And according to a study by Catalyst, three is the magic number in which women can effect change on corporate boards.

As much as I love women pioneers, it makes me even happier when it becomes “normal” to have many women in a career field.  Feeling “normal” encourages women to speak up, bring their unique perspectives into the workplace, and make a difference — regardless of whether that field is law, technology or the trades.  When women make up at least 25% of a field, or a board or, in this case, the Supreme Court, they are visible role models, they bring other women into the field and they serve as mentors for the next generation.

So now it is no longer unusual to have a woman Supreme Court Justice and, hopefully in my lifetime, we will even have a female Commander-in-Chief or two.  Let’s aim for at least one-third women in all fields, to make for a richer workplace and an enriched society.  To read more about my perspective on why it’s important to have women in all occupations, please feel free to read and share my new article, Why IWITTS?.

How do you like our new website iwitts.org?

Today we celebrated the launch of our new website iwitts.org. This is the culmination of 6 months of team work. Tell us what you think of our new website here in the comments section – we’d love your feedback. And if you find any bugs use the contact us form – and let Christine our office manager know. I’m very proud this was an all women effort in the spirit of IWITTS.

Computer Programming: Lessons that Appeal to Women and Girls

peanut-butter-computer-programmingHere’s a fun way to teach students the building blocks of computer programming skills.

Esther Frankel, a computer science instructor at Santa Barbara Community College who attended the WomenTech training I conducted last week, has generously allowed me to share her version of the lesson.  It’s called peanut butter and jelly and apparently there a number of web resources for this “PB&J” programming exercise.

Esther says, “Even though many resources identify this as an exercise for grades 4-8, I’ve used it very successfully at the high school and community college levels. In those situations, I personally don’t ‘follow’ the instructions; rather, I have students pair up or work in small groups and exchange their instructions.” She adds that she has also used exercises such as writing the instructions for going from one classroom to another (as this exercise introduces other programming “control structures”.)

You can find the lesson on The National Engineers Week Foundation website.

The Peanut Butter and Jelly exercise came up in the context of the WomenTech training module I led on how to appeal to female interests in the technology classroom. Of course, this exercise also appeals to many males who don’t start the class already understanding programming logic.

Another tool for engaging girls and women in computer programming is Alice — a resource that Esther has used successfully and that IWITTS has featured in past newsletters. The Alice programming language was designed to teach students programming. It is especially appealing to girls because programming is introduced as a “storytelling” paradigm.  Here is more information on Alice, as well as the site where you can download it.  Alice, which comes courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University, includes instructional materials, tutorials and textbooks.

I really appreciate how much I learn from the participants in our workshops, and how much they learn from each other. While conveying IWITTS’ program and knowledge base is a central focus of the WomenTech Training, equally important to the experience is having participants share strategies that have worked in their classrooms and schools.

Do you have any classroom lessons on computer programming with special appeal for women and girls?  Share them here!

Focus on What Works, Not What Doesn’t

donna-milgram-iwittsRecently, I became acquainted with “Appreciative Inquiry” — a positive change theory from the field of Organizational Development. In a nutshell, this theory suggests that an organization that inquires into problems will continue to discover more of the same, while an organization that strives to appreciate what is best in itself (and others) will discover more and more of what is good.

This theory affirms what my intuition has always told me — that the best way to get where you want to be is to look at how others have successfully done so.

For instance, in my desire to run IWITTS effectively, I have participated in several courses and some coaching for non-profit executive directors.  I learned best practices for running the business-side of IWITTS and I implemented them. On a personal level, when I wanted to lose weight a few years ago, I joined WeightWatchers. After learning what worked from the leader and other participants, I lost a size and changed my lifestyle.

I think most people would agree that the best way to learn something new is to focus on positive models. Why then, do many of those in the diversity community focus on what’s not working rather than what is as their primary strategy to effect change?

For example, many workshops and publications on recruiting and retaining women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focus on the barriers women and girls face with very little information on how to overcome them — the ratio is usually 90% barriers, 10% solutions. I’ve noticed that many of those working on diversity issues seem most animated when describing the “wrongs” committed by offending parties.  This, I fear, may create a culture of victimhood among equity practitioners that does not promote change. Don’t get me wrong, it is critical to understand barriers and discover what has not worked; however, if the goal is to bring about positive results, focusing on the negative can be counter-productive.

I get much more energized when I hear about strategies that have worked — whether it’s for personal issues, such as losing weight, or for professional challenges, such as recruiting and retaining women to STEM. Sure, at WeightWatchers we talked about “food pushers” who insist on heaping food on our plate, but in the next sentence we learned how to resist them.  That’s also true of the WomenTech Training I designed.  Ninety-five percent of it focuses on positive solutions.  And for every barrier discussed, a research-based solution(s) is proposed.  Over the past 15 years, we have collected evaluations of every IWITTS training, and a recurrent theme among participants is that our workshop provides practical solutions that can be implemented right away.

All in all, I think the field of diversity needs to make a shift — to have a primary focus on the positive and what works rather than what doesn’t.  What do you think?

Women Increase from 5% to 14% in Welding and Auto Programs

One of our CalWomenTech community colleges recently received some great news: Their recruitment efforts have paid off after 2 years of participation in the Project.  The introductory auto and welding classes at Las Positas College have gone from a baseline of 5.4% women to 14.3% in spring 2010. Last year we reported to our funder, the National Science Foundation, that recruitment progress in our trades-focused CalWomenTech sites has been slower than with programs in computer-related technology (some of which have gone to half women), so this leap is a true breakthrough. 

How did they do it? Las Positas has been persistent in their proactive efforts to recruit female students, and has gotten local press to help do their recruiting for them:

Scott Miner, a welding instructor at Las Positas, also attributes some of their success to the current emphasis in his industry on recruiting women. Recently a young woman won the American Welding Society’s welding contest. Watch the YouTube video to see Carissa Love accept her award. 

 Early in the Project, Las Positas increased the retention of all their students-females went from a 74% completion rate to an average of 98% and males went from 88% to an average of 96%-and with their recent  recruitment successes they are well on their way to meeting their goals.  Congratulations Las Positas!

Have any of your trades programs been successful in recruiting and retaining women? Comment and tell us your success story. Rosie the Riveter did a great job welding during World War II; no reason she can’t do so today!

Would you like to receive the same training Las Positas College did at the beginning of the CalWomenTech Project?  I am leading a National WomenTech Train-the-Trainer Workshop on June 28th and 29th, and I’d love to provide you with the in-depth training to help your school succeed in recruiting and retaining women and girls to your trades and technology programs. I hope to see you in San Francisco at the end of June!

Design Squad Makes Engineering Fun

For some time, I’ve been talking about how to make science and technology curricula female-friendly. One important way is to focus upfront on how science and technology can be applied.

Photo by Ken Maschke

Photo: Ken Maschke

PBS’ Design Squad does just that. Overall, this television program does a good job of presenting gender-balanced, racially diverse kids participating in real life design challenges and competitions, with the winner getting a college scholarship. The show’s website offers educators guidance on using Design Squad materials in the classroom.

Joanna Trombley is Chair of the West Chester (PA) Area School District Technology and Engineering Education Department.  She used Design Squad’s dance pad activity for a sixth grade class project on electronics. According to Joanne, “These activities let you take the key electricity/electronic concepts and apply them to solve problems.” Of course, anything related to dance, in particular, will likely appeal to many girls.  This video shows the illuminating class project in action.

Do you know any engineering and technology activities of special interest to female students? Leave a comment with your suggestion and share it with others in the community!

And for more on female-friendly science and technologies, take a look at my article, “Gender Differences in Learning Style Specific to Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (SMET).

Positive Messages for Positive Outcomes

Two noteworthy events have occurred recently in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) arena.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW), released a report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics“. And, sadly, Jaime Escalante, an outstanding math educator and one of my heroes, passed last week at age 78.

In my mind, Jaime Escalante’s teaching style personified what AAUW’s extensive review of the research literature recommends: send the message to students of all backgrounds—regardless of race, class, or gender—that they can excel in math and science, and they will.

Sounds simple, yes? But we all know that it’s not so simple to change the mindsets of students who often hear the opposite message coming at them from home, peers, the media, and even educators.

Many of Mr. Escalante’s students in the inner city Los Angeles high school where he taught had been hearing for years that they were not good at math or at school. To counteract this, he undertook a risky and relentless mission to let his students know they could excel at academics and achieve any career goal. His techniques were dramatic—for example he required students to answer a homework question before entering the classroom—but they needed to be in order to work.

And they did! By 1982, 18 of Mr. Escalante’s students passed the Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus exam and later 30 of 33 students passed.

To help girls know they can succeed in math and science, the AAUW study, which I highly recommend, points to a similar need for repeated messages. It also cites research that shows that interventions which expose females to positive messages about women in engineering increase their interest in this field.

Educators must be as relentless and dramatic as Mr. Escalante in sending the message that yes, girls and women can have math and science careers—whether this is at the university or the career technical education level.

Put up posters in school hallways showing female role models in STEM careers, show career videos of role models in the workplace, arrange for women in STEM careers to visit classrooms and serve as mentors, encourage female students to visit websites that feature female role models, and do this repeatedly.

It will be through persistent and consistent messages that we will inspire girls to consider the full range of STEM careers open to them.

What are your thoughts about how to best send positive messages to female students? I invite your comments.

Early Bird Discount Ends April 30th – Next WomenTech Educators Training
Join us on June 28/29 for the next WomenTech Educator’s Workshop and we’ll help you create an action plan for showcasing positive messages to female STEM students. The $100 early bird discount ends on Friday April 30th, and our last training sold out weeks in advance, so be sure to sign-up now to reserve your space and save!

Going to WEPAN? Say Hello.
If you happen to be at the WEPAN/NAMEPA Conference in Baltimore today, I hope you’ll stop by Stadium 1-2 from 9:30 am to 10:30 am where I’ll be presenting my paper on “The CalWomenTech Project: Using Surveys to Inform Retention Strategies of Female Technology Students.” I’ll also have a table at the Showcase Spotlight Poster Presentation in the afternoon. Come by and say hello. I’d love to connect with you!

Reaching the Tipping Point for Women in Technology

Did you know that men originally dominated the secretarial field and it was not until the 1930s that women entered the profession in significant numbers?  Biology – an area of science in which 55% of bachelor’s degrees went to women in 1998 – only awarded 29% of bachelor’s to women in 1971.

It makes me wonder: what will help us reach the “Tipping Point”, that critical juncture at which we see the number of women in technology careers substantially increase? I think if every school were to create a small outreach campaign and have classroom strategies in place to retain women in technology the numbers would tip.  In fact, there is research showing that as more women enter and stay in a field, more follow, and that attitudes toward female students are key (Cohoon 2002).

What little things can we do to make a big difference so it’s no longer unusual to see women auto technicians or game developers or engineers?  I invite your comments below.

By the way, I was at a statewide community college conference in CA last week and, in separate conversations, two administrators from the same community college told me how much their three faculty members learned from our recent WomenTech Training.  In August they’ll be doing an in-service as a “flex” activity at their College using our Train-the-Trainer materials.

Now, if that could happen at every school, maybe we’d reach the tipping point a little quicker!   (FYI – our next training is June 28-29.  The early bird discount ends on April 30th.)

Legislation Introduced to Expand Women’s Access to High-Paying Jobs

Congressman Jared Polis (CO-2) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3) along with 40 of their colleagues, introduced H.R. 4830, the Women and Workforce Investment for Nontraditional Jobs (Women WIN Jobs) Act-to fight gender inequity in the workplace and give low-income women a pathway out of poverty.

The press release includes stats which confirm our tipping point is not yet in sight: “Nontraditional jobs—those in which women comprise 25% or less of employees—pay 20-30% more than traditionally female jobs, but only 6.2% of women are employed in these occupations.” (Read Full Press Release; Read Fact Sheet)

Help Wanted

IWITTS is seeking an East Coast WomenTech Training Consultant to do our trainings onsite.  Preference given to those who have participated in our state or national WomenTech trainings and who head programs related to career and technical education.  Trainers will conduct approximately 3-6 one or two day trainings per year.  To apply, please send a cover letter with your resume to jobs at iwitts.org with WomenTech Trainer Application in the subject line.

Computer Engineer Barbie: Geek Chic?

Photo: Mattel

Photo: Mattel

The latest Barbie doll, due for release in October, is a computer engineer with a binary number t-shirt and matching pink laptop and cell phone headset. Her occupation was chosen after Mattel conducted a vote of Barbie admirers.

Whether you think she’s “geek chic” or feel that her highly sexualized figure and clothing sends the wrong message, the fact is that Barbie has a big impact on girls.  According to Mattel, 90% of girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll and BarbieGirls.com has 18 million registered users worldwide. Like it or not, Barbie is a popular culture icon and a role model for girls.

Now, I’d rather have Barbie be a computer engineer than say “Math class is hard” (as she used to).  But what I’d really prefer is for real role models to become as popular among young girls as Barbie is.

For example, DragonFlyTV’s SciGirls videos and activity guides do a great job of bringing “geek chic” to kids.  The DVDs feature a group of hip, racially diverse girls from around the country having fun with science and getting down and dirty — whether it’s digging in the bogs, playing taiko drums, building a doghouse, snorkeling, or playing sports. The girls make science colorful and fun, while explaining and demonstrating science concepts and serving as real world role models for your female students.

Also, Education for Innovation posted a new video on gender equity for secondary school students.  The video does an excellent job explaining how teachers can incorporate female-friendly learning style techniques into their classrooms to encourage students named Brittany, Bianca, or even Barbie to sign up for and stay in technology courses.

What do you think about the new Computer Barbie?  Is she geek chic or needing a reboot?