Everyone knows: Girls struggle with math and science, right?
Google “kids science kits.” Most of the products you’ll see are clearly marketed toward boys, and those that aren’t – the predominantly pink, so-called science kits produced for girls – display words like “Perfumery” and “Spa’mazing” on their packaging.
From an early age, with antiquated gender stereotypes, a lack of female mentors in STEM leadership roles, and other direct and indirect messaging, many girls shy away from considering a career in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
But studies have repeatedly shown girls are just as apt to excel at math and science as boys, and with continuing growth in the STEM-related job markets on Portland’s horizon, local economists and tech industry leaders say it’s time to let them know.
Tech is one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative industries in the metro area, and right now, white men disproportionately occupy the jobs within it.
During the first quarter of 2015, men filled nearly 70 percent of all tech positions in the Portland and Vancouver metro region, and while whites make up about 75 percent of the regional population, they occupied 84 percent of tech jobs, according to data compiled by the Portland Development Commission.
In 2014, about 1 in 4 job openings in the Portland region were STEM and health care occupations, said Amy Vander Vliet, a regional economist with Oregon Employment Department.
“Looking forward, the tri-county region is expected to create nearly 12,000 new STEM jobs by 2022, or about one out of every 12 new jobs,” she said, adding that between job growth and vacancies, there will be about 26,000 STEM job openings – not including the health industry.
But STEM jobs remain unfilled longer than jobs in other fields, indicating the skills are in high demand relative to the supply, and the supply of qualified women and minorities is even smaller.
At Intel, only 25 percent of staff is female, and far fewer are minorities. This prompted the company to pledge $300 million in early 2015 to diversifying its workforce over the next five years.
While many national and local tech companies announced plans to diversify their workforces by recruiting more women and minorities, some experts say they’re overlooking the root cause.
“It’s not only a recruitment problem; it’s a pipeline problem,” said Jennifer “Yenni” Cazares.
“Girls are receiving messages that are so traumatizing that by fourth grade, they understand that math and science are not for them,” she said.
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found 66 percent of fourth-grade girls and 68 percent of fourth grade boys said they liked science. But shortly thereafter, more girls than boys begin to turn away from STEM, reports the National Science Foundation. It also notes that by second grade, when asked to draw a scientist, most boys and girls draw a white male in a lab coat.
When Cazares spoke with Street Roots in early November, she was working at a nonprofit that’s been sparking curiosity about STEM in Portland-area girls for more than a decade. Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest runs an after-school empowerment program where elementary school girls attend workshops to build life skills and get interactive STEM experience.
Cazares decided to put her energy into diversifying STEM industries after her isolating experience as the only female and only minority student accepted into a renewable energy engineering program at Oregon Institute of Technology.
“I marked all the right boxes for their diversity needs,” she said.
Elizabeth Nye, director of Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest, said she was “one of those girls who at an early age was dissuaded from pursuing STEM indefinitely.”
Nye said she worked for years to establish national Girls Inc.’s most comprehensive program, called Eureka!, locally. Now in its third year in Portland and second in Woodburn, she hopes to expand it.
Eureka! is a five-year commitment aimed at fixing the pipeline problem by engaging girls at a young age and keeping them interested in STEM through high school.
Each Girls Inc. affiliate runs Eureka! a little differently, and one thing Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest is doing a little differently, Nye said, is making sure it’s 100 percent free to all participants.
“Based on what we know about the girls we serve, that’s too much of a barrier,” she said. The after-school girls groups, which Girls Inc. often recruits from for the Eureka! program, are primarily at elementary schools that have a high percentage of students on the free and reduced-price lunch program, she said.
For Nye, the wage gap between men and women is her personal motivation for promoting the work of Girls Inc. She said the high-paying jobs of the future are mostly in STEM, and the wage gap between men and women in those fields is actually smaller than the overall wage gap.
“I feel a very strong connection to ensuring our girls get access to those positions,” she said.
While the wage gap between men and women in non-STEM jobs is 21 percent, women make 14 percent less than men in STEM jobs, according to data compiled by Girls Inc.
Most STEM jobs pay well above the average for all occupations in the region, which is $51,000 per year, said Vander Vliet, of the Oregon Employment Department.
Locally, computer and mathematical occupations pay an average of $81,000 annually, architecture and engineering an average of $80,000, and life and physical science an average of $67,000, she said.
Girls begin Eureka! prior to eighth grade with a summer camp focused on STEM skill building, with activities such as Lego robotics and prosthetic building and exposure to prominent women working in STEM fields. Throughout the school year, monthly workshops keep the girls engaged.
During the third through fifth years of Eureka!, girls participate in externships, which are similar to internships but with more emphasis on job shadowing than performing tasks, and they have the opportunity to take college classes.
Nationally, the program has proven successful. An impact study of 10 Eureka! programs showed that after the first year, the majority of participants listed STEM or STEM-related careers for their future plans. After the second year, 89 percent said they planned to attend a four-year college and 68 percent agreed or agreed strongly that they could handle harder math.
Street Roots attended a monthly workshop for Portland-area participants in December where eighth- and ninth-grade girls met with a panel of women who work in STEM, including a WebMD data cruncher, a chemist and a fish and wildlife biologist.
The majority of attendees Street Roots spoke with said their parents made them enroll in Eureka! But those same girls also said unanimously that they’re glad their parents signed them up and that they planned to stick with it through high school.
One of those girls is Taevalin Sok, 14, of Reynolds High School. She said she’s interested in pursuing a career in chemical engineering.
Another is Amaya Gustave, a ninth-grader at Franklin High School. She said she didn’t really like math and science and would have never considered a career in STEM before her parents enrolled her in Eureka! But now, she said, she’s discovered she likes science and is considering STEM because there are a lot more options in those fields than she was aware of before.
For girls who already had an affinity for left-brained activities, the program is keeping those passions alive.
Eboni Holmes, an eighth-grader at Floyd Light Middle School, is an avid fiction reader who wants a career in science, and she especially enjoys the Friday field trips during summer camp.
“It’s really nice,” she said. “We get to see different scenery, and sometimes we get to walk a lot. It’s really good memories.”
The summer day camps are held at area community colleges, and the girls meet inside the colleges’ science classrooms and labs. Activities range from engineering and chemistry to computer science and biology.
In Woodburn, students wrote the coding for a video game based on the Disney movie “Frozen.” In Portland, the girls built habitats for bats while learning how bats contribute to the ecosystem.
But because the camps are held at colleges that are close to schools Girls Inc. recruits from, Nye said, one of the biggest challenges in retaining the girls is gentrification and its byproduct – displacement.
When the girls in Eureka! graduate from high school, Nye said, Girls Inc. will help them apply for college scholarships. This was a major draw for Rosa Barajas, who enrolled her 14-year-old daughter in the program.
“This is what I needed when I was younger,” she said. As a first-generation American, she said her parents were not able to help her in this way.
“Coming from a Hispanic family,” she said, “they don’t know where to sign up or what to ask or what to do.”
If her daughter goes to college after graduating from high school and the Eureka! program, she will be the first in Barajas’ family to do so.
Nye said it’s important that Girls Inc. continues contact with the girls even after they enter college.
“The first three semesters of college – that’s make-or-break time,” she said.
Applications for new Eureka! students, who must be outgoing seventh-graders in the Portland or Woodburn region, will be available at girlsincpnw.org by Feb. 1. Girls Inc. will accept applications through June, but space is limited.
“STEM itself has been a hot topic on the workforce development side for quite a while, if you look at where our economy is going,” said Chris Harder, the economic development director at Portland Development Commission.
He said diversifying the workforce recently became a priority for Tech Town Portland, a partnership between the PDC and more than 20 tech-based companies, including Puppet Labs, Jama and Elemental. The collaboration, formed in 2013, is aimed at showcasing Portland as an emerging tech town and attracting new tech companies and workers from out of state.
Its video boasting Portland as the ideal setting for tech industry has had more than 41,000 views online.
“A lot of these innovation-focused, fast-growing companies,” Harder said, “can’t hire fast enough, and they are having difficulty finding qualified talent here in Portland, but Portland is not unique. The Bay Area runs into this challenge. So does Boston, New York and Seattle.”
Many blame the emergence of the tech industry in San Francisco for making it unaffordable for pre-existing residents. Won’t attracting tech to Portland contribute to its already dire housing crisis?
Harder said it’s complicated.
“We have dual concerns,” he said. “There’s a gap between the number of qualified workers and the number of job openings they have. We want to help move the needle on who’s getting these jobs.”
He said that while everyone agrees affordable housing is needed, another strategy for tackling the affordability issue is to work with disconnected communities to make sure they get the skills that will qualify them for the jobs that pay well.
“It’s not one or the other,” he said. “I think in order to solve these problems and make sure we don’t go the way of San Francisco, because we don’t want to go that way, we need to work on both of those.”
During the past five years, Harder said, Portland’s seen an emergence of code and technical training schools.
“A great example of one that focuses specifically on women or girls is ChickTech,” he said.
Janice Levenhagen-Seeley, a Portland computer engineer, founded ChickTech in 2011.
“Janice realized after she had gotten her degree and gone into software development how hard it was in the industry for women. Sexism was rampant, and there just weren’t that many women in the field,” said Janelle Coburn, ChickTech Portland’s co-lead. “It really drove her to do something about it.”
Today, ChickTech has chapters in technical hubs all over the country offering tech-oriented events and workshops for K-12 girls and adult women who are interested in switching careers.
More than 100 high school girls attended its 2015 ChickTech: High School kickoff at Portland State University in November, the first in a seven-month series of mentoring events and workshops.
“I have seen the number of women in STEM decreasing,” Coburn said. “From 1991 to 2014, the number of women in computing jobs went from 37 percent to 26 percent.”
She said her employer is currently looking to hire a number of data scientists.
“We aren’t getting the female applicants,” she said.
She said many women are likely to leave the industry in their first year due to male chauvinistic work environments. She’s worked various jobs as an analytics consultant and systems analyst and said she’s experienced sexism herself.
“I experienced that being a strong female voice and being passionate about my work is seen differently than males that exude the same passion and the same strength,” she said. “There’s a difference in treatment from management.”
That’s one of the reasons Coburn is involved with ChickTech, she said.
“I don’t want people to have to deal with that, whether they be young women or career-level women,” she said.
“I think, honestly, everyone needs to step up for this. I don’t think it’s just women. We need to have more men that are stepping up for women in tech and realizing that there is a gender disparity, because I hear a lot of people – even close friends of mine – saying that, ‘Well, you know, maybe women just don’t like these jobs.’”
Between boys and girls, Girls Inc. director Nye said the capabilities are “absolutely equal.” The challenge, she said, “is getting everyone to an equal playing field.”
As area nonprofits and tech industry recruiters turn their attention toward girls, changes are happening in the toy aisle too.
Frustrated with the lack of real science kits for girls, two female scientists, who are also moms, founded Yellow Scope in 2014. This Portland-based company makes chemistry sets and science kits for girls ages 8 to 12.
The packaging isn’t pink, and rather than instructions for making soap and makeup, the contents teach concepts like chemical reactions and molecular motion.
Email reporter Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.