Nurturing women in tech fields
When Courtney Davis was a child, her parents took her to a traveling Cirque Du Soleil show in Portland. Despite the world-class acrobatics, costumes and sparkle, Davis was more fascinated by how quickly and efficiently the crew constructed the circus tent — studying the ways it was engineered.
The Portland native says she excelled in grade school math and science classes, but — unlike many girls — she was encouraged to excel in those topics.
"Being supported in my passions allowed me to build on my passions," said Davis, now 32 and a civil project engineer with KPFF Consulting Engineers in Portland. "But, at some point, most women are either deterred in their passion for science, math, technology, engineering — sometimes because it's difficult, but much of the time it's gender-related."
Women hold just 24 percent of STEM jobs — science, technology, engineering and math — in the United States. Young women often cite a lack of female role models for why they didn't pursue their passion for STEM into careers, according to a recent Microsoft study.
But several organizations are trying to change that culture in Portland, a city where STEM fields are booming.
Begins in grade school
Sarah Foster, founder and president of STEM Like a Girl, said studies show four in 10 girls enjoy STEM activities but don't receive enough practical experience. The organization wants to make that statistic disappear by engaging girls in third through fifth grade — along with their parents — in science, tech, engineering and math-related projects.
Two years ago, while taking time away from work as a chemical and biomedical engineer, Foster introduced STEM-related activities in her two sons' classrooms. However, she noticed a difference between young female and male students.
"The girls weren't raising their hands and weren't jumping into those science projects like the boys," Foster said. "I was surprised at how much of a gender gap could develop at that age."
So, in September 2017, Foster founded STEM Like a Girl, a nonprofit that provides parent-daughter STEM activity workshops in the Portland area. The first workshop was held in June.
"The goal of all this is to build confidence and excitement for these girls and to do those same things for the parents, so they can help their children foster their passion for science, math or tech," Foster said.
While parent attendees at the first workshop said they cherished the bonding time with their children, Foster said the greatest take away for the young girls was being introduced to successful female mentors in STEM careers.
When girls interact with female mentors in the STEM space, they are more likely to believe in themselves — and believe they can be successful in largely male-dominated fields, Foster said.
Davis decided she wanted to become an engineer in middle school, and was encouraged to pursue her dream.
"Because I had a support system that never really let me take a step back from engineering — doing what I love — I enjoy giving back to STEM Like a Girl," Davis said. She's also president of the Oregon chapter of The American Society of Civil Engineers.
The work of engaging young women in STEM has to continue through high school, a time when students begin shaping their higher education plans and career paths.
"For high school girls, it is really important that they can picture themselves in a STEM role if that's what they're passionate about," Davis said.
High school and beyond
"Girls that age realize the boys in their class are being encouraged and celebrated for whatever moves they're making on the math or science projects," said Emma Holland, a program manager with Thinkful in Portland, a mentorship and technical learning program for aspiring code developers and data scientists.
"Girls, on the other hand, are often the ones being bullied if they are so inclined in a STEM field," Holland said.
"Middle school is where stereotypes about women begin to emerge, and by high school young girls find very few female role models in STEM fields," said Janel Hull, Portland program manager for ChickTech, which tries to bridge the gap between females and males in high school.
The Portland branch of a national nonprofit, ChickTech provides a year-long program for high school girls who have little access to or knowledge about the tech industry.
After students finish the program, the results are tangible, Hull said.
"We just see the biggest spike in confidence for those girls," Hull said. "After being in a space that encourages women, we saw an increase from 27 percent to 74 percent confidence in girls and women pursuing tech. They know that they belong in that field."
One in every five Oregon jobs falls into a STEM category, including health care, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Since Thinkful landed in Portland a year ago, Holland has been working with nearly 80 students at a time — many of them female — to begin their tech careers right out of high school, college or after a career switch.
"Perhaps you're coming out of retirement or perhaps you don't want to be a server or administrative assistant anymore," Holland said. "These women might feel like their current career is bottlenecked or they are tired of working on a team where they have to ask for another person's help when they know exactly what to do themselves."
However, once these women make the career change or find their place in the tech industry, even more challenges tend to arise, Holland said.
During advising time spent with Thinkful students, meetings are equal parts skills-based and communication-based, Holland said. Often, their conversations revolve around the "imposter syndrome" women often face in their professional careers — constantly doubting their own accomplishments and feeling they're not living up to what other professionals, mainly males, produce.
"Fighting imposter syndrome is something we constantly go back and forth with," Holland said. "But, their (computer software) speaks for itself. There is a lot of instant gratification because they can show that their code works."
Allison Schaser, who had a background in speech pathology research, experienced some of that syndrome when she moved to Portland and shifted into a new neuroscience track — an uncharted field for her and one predominantly composed of male scientists. It was a culture shock.
"For the first time ever, I felt really stupid. I questioned what I had done. You know, why did I think I could do that?" Schaser said. "So, for the first year, I struggled a lot."
In her first months as a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon Health & Science University, Schaser found few other females in her specific field to connect with. Then someone told her about Women in Science Portland.
"I just fell in love with it," she said, eventually becoming president of the nonprofit.
The group is a support and networking organization for Portland women in all forms of science.
"We want to make sure that young kids — both boys and girls — know that science is an equal opportunity field. We want them to know that anyone can be a scientist," Schaser said. "A scientist doesn't have to be a white guy in a white coat."
Women in Science largely focuses on professional development, to address gender equity and poorer retention rates for women in STEM fields,
The Center for Work-Life Policy found that U.S. women, if they haven't left within a year of landing a STEM job, often will leave their career path within 10 years because of workplace hostility, the gender pay gap and a lack of female mentors, among other factors.
"We know that women in science — if they stick around long enough — have a hard time moving up into stronger positions, and they often don't feel supported in their early careers," Schaser said. "We want to create a community where women know how to negotiate, know how to find mentors, know how to build relationships in terms of networking, so they can branch out and up."
In recent years, Holland said she has seen more female STEM professionals being internally promoted and valued within their companies. She attributes this to local Portland companies and industry-wide culture shifts.
Holland said she'll know sexism in STEM fields has dissipated when a woman no longer has to ask if she is being paid less than her male counterparts.
Women with the same education and similar skill sets as male counterparts in STEM professions often are paid less for doing the same job, she said.
Women in STEM jobs still earn only 89 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, according to Bloomberg. The pay gap is even greater for women minorities and those in the LGBTQ communities.
Back in 2007, Megan Bigelow was working in information technology and felt she was at the height of her career.
"Then I discovered that a male colleague was making 30 percent more than me, even when I was outperforming him," Bigelow said. "Back then there wasn't a network of people to support you or to go to. My colleagues wouldn't have understood. At that time, I didn't even know it was a gendered problem."
Now Bigelow is president of Portland Women in Technology, a group founded in 2012 that numbers more than 5,000 members, who network and address pay and equity issues. "The two biggest challenges women coming into these fields will face is pay and equity," Bigelow said. "It's getting better but definitely not solved."
Holland, Schaser and Davis all say the way to rectify the systemic gender gap is to bring more women into STEM industries — making them a larger, more valued part of the workforce.
"If the percentage of men still overly saturates and dominates the scene in any company, then the company needs to look into a culture change. And if they don't, at that point it's like preaching to the choir," Holland said.
But the many local organizations working on the issue have been "invaluable" at bridging the gaps and helping women find success in STEM careers, she said.
"There are so many nonprofits engaging in career and educational enhancement for women, and that is what I find makes Portland really stick out against other cities," Holland said.
In large part due to the impact of Intel and Tektronix before it, STEM jobs now account for 7.2 percent of all Portland-area positions in the metro area, above the national average of 5.8 percent, according to Forbes. That apparently doesn't include health care jobs.
As Portland becomes a tech hub, it's also becoming a center for nonprofits and organizations geared toward women in STEM fields, said Sridaran Saranya, who has worked in the field here 17 years, including 10 at Intel.
"We know that we as women are strong and capable. We know what we're talking about in these jobs," Saranya said.
"But it helps to have the backing of all these other women and people in the city," she said.
"Women are using their spare time to do outreach and pull up the next generation of women in pursuing STEM," Davis said. "I think it's a broad movement and an exciting moment for women."
Follow Hailey Stewart on Twitter at @Hailey_ann97
Local groups working with girls/women in STEM
n PSU Women in STEM: https://orgsync.com/129213/chapter
n Chicktech: https://portland.chicktech.org/
n Women in Science Portland: https://womeninsciencepdx.org/
n STEM Like a Girl: http://stemlikeagirl.org/
n PDX Women in Tech: http://www.pdxwit.org/
n Women Who Code Portland: https://www.womenwhocode.com/portland
n Girls Inc. PNW: http://www.girlsincpnw.org/
n Thinkful: https://www.thinkful.com/