A-B Tech scores grant to boost women in science, technology, engineering and math programs.
by Tracy Rose
photo by René Treece Roberts
Back in the early ’90s, Pamela Silvers was attending a huge Comdex computer trade show in Atlanta when she was struck by what she didn’t see.
“I could barely identify any women out of the hundreds of people,” recalls Silvers, who’s now Business Computer Technologies Chair at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
The male-dominated scene at the convention center served as a microcosm of the industry as a whole — and one that, unfortunately, holds true even today. And it’s not just the information-technology field, either.
Women make up only about 24 percent of the workers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, even though they represent about half the country’s labor force, according to 2009 statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
At A-B Tech, the numbers are even more startling. Women comprised only 12 percent of 334 students in nine technology programs in the 2009-’10 school year, though they made up about 57 percent of the college’s 8,149 curriculum students last fall.
But Silvers — who has long been disappointed in the dearth of women in her field — is now in a position to help turn those numbers around, at least at A-B Tech. She’s lead investigator of a faculty-member team that secured a $199,896 grant from the National Science Foundation this spring to recruit and retain women in science, technology, engineering and math programs.
The three-year grant aims to boost the number of women by 45 percent in information-systems security and eight technology programs: civil engineering, computer engineering, computer information, electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, networking, surveying, and sustainability.
The grant also aims to engage both women and men in first-year technical courses with what’s called problem-based learning, in which students are tasked with solving problems they might encounter in the workplace.
The push to recruit and retain more women comes as welcome news to Naiyah Edwards, a 20-year-old work-study student in the college’s networking technology program.
“So far, it’s been kind of strange being the only female in classes,” says Edwards.
Edwards admits that she sometimes feels uncomfortable in the male-dominated class discussions. But she also feels confident enough to ask questions when she needs to: “I handle it pretty well, I think.”
A single mom of a 1-year-old girl named Taylor, Edwards didn’t originally plan on her current major. But when she couldn’t even get waitlisted for the college’s popular nursing classes last fall, she decided to give networking a try.
“It’s worked out pretty well for me, and I actually like it,” Edwards reveals.
Research indicates that women typically aren’t attracted to the science, technology, engineering or math fields because they are traditionally male professions, Silvers says. Few women role models, plus college marketing materials with photos of men also play a role in the gender imbalance, she notes.
On the recruiting end, the grant calls for deploying female student ambassadors to high-school career fairs, and holding an education expo to inform high-school counselors and teachers about the programs. Marketing materials for traditional and non-traditional students will be redesigned, and A-B Tech reps will hit Asheville’s vibrant festival scene to get the word out.
Once women are enrolled, new strategies will be launched to keep women engaged. Female students automatically will become members of a Women in Technology group, which will connect women through meetings and social media. A mentoring program will debut, and surveys will probe students’ opinions.
The grant also will fund gender-equity workshops for faculty members to make them more aware of language and classroom materials that might subtly exclude women.
For those who stick with it, there may be good news ahead. The nine programs prepare students for technician positions, which will account for about 44 percent of job openings in the U.S. in the next decade, according to a 2011 Manpower survey. (A Bachelor’s degree would be required for those wishing to go further in most of the fields — a civil-engineering technician, for example, would need more schooling to become a civil engineer.)
Meanwhile, Edwards says that if she had any advice for her fellow women students, it would be this: “Don’t feel intimidated, don’t be discouraged and don’t give up. And become the solution to the gender-gap problem.”
For more information visit abtech.edu or call 828-254-1921, ext 249.