An Interview with Susie Wheeler: Promoting Gender Equity in Science and Math (STEM)

Jun 13, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)    Susie, could you tell us a little bit about what exactly you do and where you work?

Generally, when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a gender equity consultant.” If their eyes glaze over, I try to explain in more detail.

“I am the project director for a Carl D. Perkins Leadership Grant to improve student participation and completion in non-traditional occupations (Perkins 5P1 and 5P2)”. Are you speaking English?

I work to get men interested in what might be perceived as traditionally female jobs, and women interested in what are perceived as traditionally male jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields that will lead to high-demand, high-wage occupations.

For example, I try to encourage men to explore nursing or dental hygiene, or women to think about welding or drafting. A non-traditional occupation is one in which the under-represented gender is less than 25%.

I work from Amarillo College, but deal with all the community and technical colleges in Texas. My job is about helping institutions improve their statistics on these federally funded measures. I also serve as the Texas facilitator for the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity STEM Equity Pipeline Project, which specifically deals with improving female participation and completion in STEM education. The “pipeline” is created from the secondary school to the community college to the university.

2)    Now, tell us about this grant that you are involved with.

Institutions that receive Perkins funding are required to increase performance from data submitted concerning non-traditional participation and retention. For these non-trad measures, an institution submits data for the entire institution AND data for each program offered at that institution.

I disseminate information that Special Populations Coordinators or Perkins Directors will find useful in these efforts at their institution. In the Pipeline Project, I am working with four community colleges. Each one selected a program to improve, found the root causes for low enrollment or retention of the non-traditional gender, and, after reviewing these barriers, initiated projects to encourage these students to enroll or persist in the program. For example Clarendon College focused on Wind Energy. They found one root cause for women not continuing in the program to be math ability. They have worked with local high schools to let students know the math required to be successful in the program. They also require a math teacher from the high school to accompany students when they have a career expo or tours of the renewable energy lab. The math teachers become more aware of industry needs and the math skills required for the students to be successful.

3)    Let’s talk about non traditional training- why do you see it as important and what seems to be student reaction?

It really is about equal access to education and employment opportunities. A student who is interested in automotive technology should not be discouraged because of gender. Some fields persist in gender bias, but as qualified workers of both genders emerge, gender will become less of an issue.

Student reaction has generally been positive. There is research that tells us when gender equity initiatives are introduced, everyone benefits—male and female.

4)    Can you give us one example of a typical male job or career that might interest a female?

Drafting

5)    Now how about a typical female vocation that might interest a male?

Nursing

6)    What has been the reaction from the community and students?

Many people don’t see the need for this. If someone is interested in that field, they will pursue it. They don’t realize that some families discourage these nontraditional occupations or how difficult it is to be the “only one”.  Also it is important for these students to know which fields can lead to employment and a living wage. Often, there are occupations that the students have never heard of and did not know existed. For example, para-legal for men or surveying for women. Unless the student knows someone in that field, they may not consider it.

Industries need qualified workers that have skills training. Employers support Career and Technical Education (CTE) and welcome qualified workers from either gender who have successfully complete quality programs.

7)    Any parental reaction? Student concerns about employment?

Actually, some parents are concerned about stereotypes and discrimination. Many do not want their daughters and sons being harassed in the workforce or by narrow-minded members of our society. It is important to involve and educate parents, to get them information, and to include them in career exploration when their child is young.

8)    Susie, I gotta tell you, I just don’t see myself being a nail technician—bricklayer, yes, carpenter, perhaps, plumber, maybe, surgeon- I doubt it…Is there anything wrong with me?

In this regard, no! (I gotta say, I don’t see myself as a nail-tech either. This effort is about finding a good fit for your interests and abilities. If you were interested in becoming a nail technician, I would hate to hear anyone tell you can’t become one because you are a man. However, I might try to re-direct you to a STEM career that would provide you a better living wage. Have you considered Medical Lab Tech or Surgical Tech instead??

9)    Where can people get more information?

Career Advisors or Counselors at secondary schools, community colleges and universities can provide a career assessment. For lots of really good information about current issues and archived webinars visit www.stemequitypipeline.org. Of course, contact me at swheeler@napequity.org.

10)    What have I neglected to ask?

Let’s not forget the role of media in these efforts. Women see someone who looks like them in law enforcement because of “CSI”, as attorneys because of “The Good Wife”, and as cold-hearted CEOs from” Shark Tank”. “The Big Bang Theory” has women engineers who hold their own. It would be great to SEE more women and men in non-traditional occupations.

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