As women still represent a minority in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), organizations such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), software company Laserfiche and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), continue reworking the equation to ensure these careers are accessible to young women.
The Long Beach branch of AAUW hosted its 15th annual STEM conference for seventh- and eighth-grade girls on February 23 at Long Beach City College. The organization partnered with seven Long Beach middle schools: Franklin Classical Middle School, Hamilton Middle School, Jackie Robinson Academy, John Muir Academy, Colin Powell Academy, Stephens Middle School and Washington Middle School to transport and supervise 250 of their students.
Frances Rozner, left, and Mary Lamo are co-chairs of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) STEM conference for middle-school girls in Long Beach. The conference took place February 23 at the Long Beach City College campus. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Anne Artley)
“We want to expose girls to STEM in middle school so, by the time they pick a college major, STEM will be within their grasp,” Conference Co-chair Frances Rozner said. Rozner, along with her Co-chair Mary Lamo, planned the event in February since students select their ninth-grade classes in March.
At the conference, the girls participated in two workshops of their choice to learn about specific careers through hands-on activities. Some of this year’s activities included excavating bones from packages of dirt with a paleontologist and learning the type of energy needed to burn off certain calories from a dietician.
“We contact organizations and ask if they have younger women to attend, if possible,” Rozner said. “We also try to get women of color. Our [students] are almost all Hispanic and black. They’ve told us they want to have women who look like them so they have a role model. Our girls are all from Title I schools. We wanted girls who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to find out about these careers.” Title I schools are categorized under the United States Department of Education as those with a high number of students from low-income families.
Charlie Dodson, a history teacher at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, helped coordinate the transport of students to the conference when he taught at Hill Classical Middle School, which the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) closed in 2013. He said he has witnessed the positive impact of the conference on students during his years in education.
Girls conduct experiments during workshops to learn about different STEM careers at one of the AAUW’s annual conferences. The attendees are all from Title I schools, which are classified by the United States Department of Education as those with a high number of students from low-income families. (Photograph courtesy of AAUW.)
“It’s a pretty amazing thing,” he said. “It’s one thing to tell them, ‘I think you should go to college and become an engineer.’ That doesn’t really resonate with a 13-year-old. But I remember going to this one presentation [at the conference] by a civil engineer. She had the girls working with partners to create a suspension bridge out of string. You could see the lightbulbs going off and the gears moving in these girls’ heads.”
AAUW partnered with LBUSD in 2015 to determine the outcomes of the conference. Rozner said she obtains permission from the attendees’ parents to contact the girls four years later to find out how it influenced their educational choices. The school district also started tracking the high school classes the girls decided to take. At the end of the conference, attendees complete an evaluation with their impressions of the event.
“I think more women are getting degrees in STEM fields. Whether they stay in it or find work is still of doubt,” Rozner said. “Many of the companies tend to have a huge number of males, so it’s the culture. Research has shown that the culture needs to change within certain companies. That’s been one of our challenges when we try to find speakers. But I’ve been very impressed with the number of engineering firms in Long Beach that have young women.”
Long Beach-based software company Laserfiche has committed to creating an environment that fosters female success. Employees at the company said that this is due in part to the influence of its female founder, Nien-Ling Wacker, who started the company in 1987. Laserfiche specializes in content management solutions.
According to Human Resources Director Laura Victoria, women make up about half of Laserfiche’s employees and about 37% percent of its engineering team. A 2016 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that women represent only 13% of the country’s engineering workforce.
Students from seven Long Beach middle schools had the opportunity on February 23 to explore careers they might not have known about at the annual American Association of University Women STEM conference. “We want to expose girls to STEM in middle school so, by the time they pick a college major, it will be within their grasp,” Conference co-chair Frances Rozner said. (Photographs courtesy of AAUW.)
Victoria also reported that about half of the directors at Laserfiche and half of its summer interns are female. “All of the women in leadership roles in the company are very nurturing and supportive, and offer their time and mentorship to younger women at the company,” Victoria said. “It’s great to have a founder who was a woman because she wasn’t afraid of putting women in leadership roles.”
Two Laserfiche employees, Cloud Product Manager Katie Gaston and Senior Vice President of Sales Hedy Belttary, spoke to the company’s flexible environment, which encourages its employees to take on different roles.
“If you have an idea, you can make it happen. I feel that’s something that not all companies support and I think Laserfiche is really good about,” Gaston said. “Even though we’re an established company, I still feel like we have the ability to be agile and grassroots. We make sure we can move our product and technology forward in the best way possible by supporting innovative ideas internally.”
As the cloud product manager, Gaston’s primary responsibility is moving Laserfiche’s software onto a cloud-based system. The cloud is a network of servers that stores data without taking up space on a phone or computer.
Belttary said her favorite part of working at Laserfiche is the opportunity for advancement. “We’re a very merit-based company. We give people the opportunity to grow, and we don’t necessarily look at how long they’ve been here.”
In the past, representatives from Laserfiche have attended the AAUW conference. They have also taken part in both local and national initiatives to encourage women’s participation in STEM. Some of these include The Grace Hopper Celebration, which provides a networking forum for women in STEM careers, and the Young Women’s Empowerment Conference, held through Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s office.
Pictured from left: Senior Vice President of Sales Hedy Belttary, Senior Cloud Product Manager Katie Gaston and Human Resources Director Laura Victoria are all employees at the Long Beach-based software company Laserfiche. The women spoke to the inclusive environment at Laserfiche, which helps foster female success. “All of the women in leadership roles in the company are very nurturing and supportive, and offer their time and mentorship to younger women at the company,” Victoria said. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Anne Artley)
Gaston said she thinks self-doubt can preclude women from pursuing these careers. “I still think there’s some stigma being female and saying, ‘Is it okay if I go into this career? Am I going to experience challenges because of my gender?’ The culture is changing to empower women to have that confidence, but I think it’s definitely an internal struggle of knowing you can do anything.”
Dr. Tracy Bradley Maples, the associate dean for academic programs at CSULB’s College of Engineering, also said she thinks stereotypes play a role in turning women away from STEM. She found that there was a higher number of women in her college computer science classes in the 1980s.
“When I started out, computer science was a new field, and considered an equally good career for men or women. Now we have the stereotype that people who use computers are mostly males, stay up all night, and are socially awkward and nerdy,” she said. “That doesn’t appeal to a lot of women. That’s unfortunate because it wouldn’t represent what they’d be doing [in a STEM career].”
Females make up about 17% to 19% of CSULB’s engineering school, which is around the national average, according to Maples. The school conducts outreach efforts at local high schools and middle schools to encourage women and underrepresented minorities, such as African Americans, to study STEM. One of these initiatives is a mentorship program that pairs high school students with female engineering majors from CSULB’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
“I think there’s some misunderstanding by women that [STEM] careers don’t offer enough flexibility,” Maples said. “Often women are looking for the whole package in a career. They want something that helps people and offers flexibility if they decide to have kids. They don’t normally think of engineering. But I just had a meeting with the owner of a very large construction company who allows his female employees to take a year off, and create a schedule that fits their childcare needs.”