Women in STEM shine at SheTech Explorer Day

The gathering of 3,000 young women and girls at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy was the “closest thing to a Taylor Swift concert” Utah had seen in recent years, Gov. Spencer Cox told the crowd.

True, like a concert, confetti and glitter covered the floor and the faces of the wide-eyed attendees, most of them Utah high school girls. But these girls were not there to dance or sing.

On Thursday — March 14, Pi Day — they were there to celebrate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and to explore the possibilities STEM can offer.

Cox said the 10th annual SheTech Explorer Day was the “largest gathering of women in tech in the history of our state.”

The event’s growth in its 10-year history is testament against some of the pervasive stereotypes that still hold some women and girls back from pursuing STEM degrees and careers, said Cydni Tetro, president of Utah’s Women Tech Council: That girls are somehow not as good at science or math; that they are inherently less interested in it; that such careers are not useful, or fun.

STEM, Tetro said, “is not one-size-fits-all. … We’re solving the problems of the world.”

And, Tetro said, she wants girls to see they can have fun doing it. That is SheTech Explorer Day’s mission.

Aging stereotypes are among the several “barriers” women and girls still face in STEM careers, as 18-year-old Salma Al-Shuqairat told Cox in a lunch-hour question-and-answer session — even in a state that frequently boasts its tech-friendly business environment.

“What is the state doing to support us succeeding in this field?” Al-Shuqairat asked the governor.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Claire Dean, Ellie Little, Leah Perez and Kate Topham at SheTech Explorer Day in Sandy on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

‘Need to see it to be it’

Al-Shuquairat’s older brother was considered the “smarter one” in school, the high school senior told The Salt Lake Tribune. She saw him succeed in science and math and saw his interest in tech, and assumed she would never share his passion or talent.

“I always felt like, ‘Oh, I just can’t do it.’ Like, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t,” she said.

Since finding SheTech, she said she has shifted her perspective. Instead of matching her interests with her perceived capabilities, she said she now tries to build her skills around what ignites her passion — which, currently, is exercise science.

“It’s not about what you’re capable of,” she said. “It’s about what you want to do. Because you can do anything you want.”

Still, her question to Cox addressed the real challenges girls and women still face in male-dominated STEM industries.

Women’s participation in Utah’s STEM industries was up to 21% in 2021, according to labor data analyzed by the Utah Women and Leadership Project. That was a 16.7% increase from 2016, but still below the national rate of 27%.

And Utah has one of the highest gender wage disparities in the country for full-time employees, regardless of industry, according to census data compiled by software company QRFY. The median STEM salary for women in Utah is roughly 74% of men’s median salary, according to 2019 data from Pew Research Center.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People pose for a 3D selfie at SheTech Explorer Day in Sandy on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

There’s also a perception problem, said Alison Sturgeon, an electrical engineer at Hill Air Force Base, where women account for 14% of science and technology workers.

“Girls need to see it to be it,” Sturgeon said. “Everybody knows what a teacher does and what a dentist and a lawyer do, right? But so many don’t have a clue what a computer scientist does, or an engineer does.”

It’s even trickier when the people girls do see in those fields don’t look like them.

“I feel like for girls our age, it’s kind of scary to think about, like, ‘Oh, are we going to actually go into technology because … it’s so overgrown with men that women don’t really think that they can get a job,’” said Claire Dean, a 17-year-old junior at Mountain View High School in Orem.

It’s intimidating, Dean added, even though “we’re smarter — I’ve just got to say it.”

Lindsey Henderson said she remembers being one of the only girls in her math classes in college and feeling too afraid to speak up or participate.

Now, as the state school board’s secondary mathematics specialist, she said she works to ensure Utah’s girls are’t feeling left out in math and science classrooms.

Most kids have already decided that they’re “good” or “bad” at math and science by the time they reach middle school, studies have shown — and girls are more likely to lose interest, even though they generally perform as well as boys do on standardized tests. Teachers can play a part in that perception, Henderson said.

But students in classrooms that make room for discussion and equal participation perform better, regardless of gender.

“What’s good for girls in STEM is good for everybody,” Henderson said.

It’s for fun

SheTech Explorer Day cannot fix the gender pay gap, but it can help to solve the perception problem.

Dean and three fellow SheTech student board members — 17-year-old Ellie Little, 16-year-old Leah Perez, and 16-year-old Kate Topham — all said Explorer Day is the day they look forward to most. They love it, they agreed, because of the passion that oozes from the other girls, and from the mostly female mentors with whom they get to interact throughout the day.

In the TechZone, 150 companies set up booths to offer real-life demonstrations of different STEM applications: 3-D printers, cosmetics, origami satellites. At one booth, girls could manufacture their own diamonds. At each booth, a representative or mentor was eager to teach girls their craft.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People pose for a 3D selfie at SheTech Explorer Day in Sandy on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

“I love the people who are talking to you because they’re all really happy to tell you about it,” Little said. “When someone shows interest in them, they just light up and they get so happy and they start talking and they don’t stop. I love it.”

“It’s like you see a twinkle in their eye,” Dean added.

Beyond the practical lessons and demonstrations, girls at SheTech said the biggest takeaway is that STEM is fun. For girls like Topham and Perez, that revelation instilled new passion for science and technology that they cannot shake.

Topham wanted to study international relations; now she wants to study chemical engineering and take those skills abroad. Perez wanted to be a teacher — and she might still, she said, but she “can’t see [herself] doing anything that’s not science-based or math-based.”

For Manya Nair, SheTech turned a lifelong skill into a passion. Nair, 21, is a senior at the University of Utah studying computer science, which is exactly what she thought she would study as an 11-year-old budding programmer. Her dad taught her the early skills she needed to develop a hobby, Nair said. SheTech gave her the “passion” for it.

“I didn’t really see the ‘why’ until high school,” Nair said. “SheTech set me on that path.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People try their hand at a structural engineering test put on by Salt Lake Community College at SheTech Explorer Day in Sandy on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

Nair said she wants to work in heath care technology — to help people, she said, without having to see blood.

“If a computer can do it, I can program that computer,” she said.

Nair is also a dancer — a talent she learned from her mom — and said that computer science, like dance, is a precious balance between creativity and structure, between delicacy and power. One missed step can throw off a dance; one missing piece of punctuation can break an entire piece of code.

To achieve that balance, the tech workforce needs a balance of perspectives from every gender. In her field, that balance doesn’t exist yet, Nair said.

“To solve a problem, you ned both male and female perspectives. But right now, what’s happening in the industry is that there’s a majority male perspective,” Nair said. “So, these problems are not being solved.”

Tetro said SheTech might have to find a new venue next year, to fit the ever-expanding number of girls curious about STEM. That’s a good thing. Even if they don’t pursue a STEM degree, Tetro said, Utah’s high school girls will leave with a new perspective on their own capabilities — and will have had a good time.

“It’s just fun,” Tetro said. “We want girls to leave saying, ‘That was fun.’”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

Source link

Leave a Comment