Breaking the ‘Steel Ceiling’

Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis works to increase the number of female students. (Photo by Natalie Erin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Women might make up nearly half of the total workforce, but when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math careers, female employees are underrepresented: According to the National Science Foundation’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, women only make up 27.5 percent of all workers in science and engineering fields.

At Dunwoody College of Technology, a technical college based in Minneapolis, school administrators have made it part of their strategic plan to break the “steel ceiling” and increase the number of female students attending and graduating from the school. Women’s Enrollment Coordinator Maggie Whitman is building relationships with key external agencies, reaching out to girls in high schools to build interest in STEM programs, supporting them through the admissions process and building programming to promote the success of women once they have enrolled at Dunwoody.

Below are edited excerpts from Whitman’s interview with Diversity Executive.

Why do you think it is important to have more women employed in STEM fields?

Maggie Whitman, Dunwoody College of Technology
Maggie Whitman, Dunwoody College of Technology

The United States and local economies are in dire need of technicians, whether in the machine tool occupations, construction or a host of other fields. These jobs have substantial salaries, benefits and outstanding career potential that needs to be part of the conversation with women from the beginning. These career options need to be part of the conversation with women.

By not pursuing STEM careers, women are losing out on opportunities for high-paying, high-demand jobs. Instead, due to many factors — including biased career advice, societal expectations and their own perceptions — many women find themselves clustered into lower pay, lower-growth industries such as sales, service and child care.

What obstacles do women face that might prevent them from aspiring to STEM professions?

Although our society is changing to become more supportive of women in a variety of roles, gender discrimination continues to be pervasive. Women face many barriers that prevent them from being successful in technical fields. To name a few: Women receive unequal treatment in the workplace, unequal pay, gender-biased career counseling and negative messaging caused by inaccurate assumptions about what it takes to be successful in a technical career. At very young ages — some studies indicate as early as elementary school — many girls lose interest in STEM and gravitate toward “helping professions” such as child care, hospitality and social work. Although this kind of work is certainly valuable and important, careers in these industries offer few opportunities for advancement, lower salaries and fewer benefits than STEM careers on average.

How can those challenges be overcome?

Early intervention is key. When girls disengage with STEM at a young age, they achieve lower grades in math and science, and do not choose to take the high school classes that will prepare them for a technical education. But one positive interaction with a female role model can have a lasting effect on a child. At Dunwoody, our women faculty members regularly participate in career fairs at schools and lead hands-on technical activities for young girls on our campus. It’s important to introduce young women to female engineers, web designers and auto mechanics so they may see themselves in these careers.

In addition, studies show that women are attracted to work that solves problems and helps people, so let’s think of ways to emphasize the “helping” and problem-solving aspects of technical industries. Let’s talk about the importance of designing high-quality medical devices and constructing more affordable housing. If we talk about STEM as a tool to address community issues and make the world a better place, women may listen.

How can other schools and institutions work to encourage women in STEM?

It seems that right now, everyone is scrambling to figure out the answer to this question. I don’t think there’s one solution for the dearth of women in STEM, but I know it’s important for schools to embrace an attitude of innovation and inclusion when solving this problem. We cannot simply do things as we’ve always done and expect the number of women in STEM to increase. We have to ask women themselves how they like to learn, what they’re looking for in a career, and what keeps them motivated and engaged in the workplace. If we are truly committed to supporting women, then we will to respond to their needs by adapting curriculum, investing in wrap-around support services and addressing workplace culture issues.

At Dunwoody, we do not expect to treat every student the same and achieve the same results. To recruit, retain and graduate more women with STEM degrees, we know that we need to invest more time and resources into serving our women students. We researched best practices and came up with a plan to offer scholarships for women, child care support, a mentorship program, tutoring and targeted advising services. We hope changes like these will encourage more women to enter and succeed in STEM.