Vermont expo gives high school girls an expansive view of their potential

  • Cassandra Summarsell, 17, of Woodstock, a Woodstock Union High School student who attends HACTC for health sciences, tries her hand at operating an excavator during the Women Can Do STEM and Trades Career Expo at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. Summarsell has driven a tractor and her father's bulldozer before but it was her first time at the controls of an excavator. The event, organized by Vermont Works for Women introduces high school aged girls to opportunities in careers in which women are traditionally under represented. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Henry Lefebvre, of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, gives Kylee LaPete, 16, of Danville, right, a tutorial on operating an excavator during the Women Can Do STEM and Trades Career Expo at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. LaPete said she grew up around trucks and heavy equipment. "I really like the health field a lot and want to be a traveling nurse," she said. "But this stuff is fun." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mary Scherer, 15, of Barnard, a freshman at Sharon Academy, practices tying a suture on the skin of a banana at the Women Can Do STEM and Trades Career Expo at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mary Scherer, 15, of Barnard, right, gets a high five from 4-H educator Molly McFaun, left, after learning to tie a suture at the UVM Extension 4-H table at the Women Can Do STEM and Trades Career Expo at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. Scherer is interested in becoming a veterinarian. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2019 3:40:28 PM

Michaela Mercier is the only girl in the collision repair program at Hartford Area Career and Technical Center this year, and she’s fine with that.

“I show all the guys that I can do anything they can do,” said Mercier, 17, a junior from Windsor. And in return: “All the guys show me respect.”

Not every teenage girl feels so comfortable in such settings. That’s why, last Thursday, Mercier was part of a very different learning environment, as hundreds of girls — and only girls — convened at Vermont Technical College in Randolph for the annual Women Can Do conference to learn about STEM and trade careers.

Under tents set up on the campus lawn, high school girls from all over the state tried power tools and hand tools, tinkered with car parts, operated robots and helped develop a video game. In the classrooms of nearby Judd Hall, they learned about careers ranging from construction to filmmaking, as well as such job skills as collaboration and negotiation.

“The overall mission is to get girls here and trying things hands on, just trying to broaden their ideas of what is possible,” said Maisie Howard, director of development and communications for the Winooski, Vt.-based Vermont Works for Women, which hosts the annual event. “One of the things we’ve found is that there’s stronger participation, stronger engagement and stronger buy-in in a women-only environment. … It’s an opportunity for them to feel the most comfortable and the most open.”

A lot has changed in the 21-year history of the Women Can Do conference. Female representation has risen significantly in a number of high-paying fields over the past few decades, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, employers have become much more aware of gender inequities in the workplace and are making strides toward addressing them, Howard said. And at the moment, record unemployment is creating a favorable landscape for women to secure good-paying jobs and create careers that fit their needs, she said.

In other ways, the workplace landscape looks much the same as it has for decades. Just 4.6% of women work in STEM fields, compared with 10.3% of men, and even smaller percentages go into construction trades. Meanwhile, women continue to go into lower-paying fields such as health care and education at much higher rates than men and continue to face bias in male-dominated fields.

“There’s definitely a pay gap, especially in a small place like Vermont. You really have to be on top of that,” said Lindsey Lathrop, a career and business coach from Burlington, who led a workshop titled “The Art of Negotiation” at the conference.

Lathrop urged the students who had gathered in her classroom to build their self-advocacy muscles by asserting their needs or preferences in small ways, such as making weekend plans. She reminded them that they have more power than they realize in situations such as setting babysitting rates.

“You don’t just have to take what people offer you,” she said.

Lathrop, who remembers negotiating her salary for the first time when she was 16, started her coaching business in part because of what she noticed while working at a nonprofit organization that connected high school students with career options. Over and over again, she saw high school guidance counselors steer girls toward traditionally female careers.

In addition to being exposed to all the careers available to them, young women need to know how to advocate for themselves, Lathrop said. And their school experience doesn’t always encourage that skill.

“High school education works really well for girls because it plays into our perfectionism and rule following,” she said. “And then you get into the real world, and it doesn’t really work like that.”

If the real world entails muddy shoes and flying sparks, the roar of power tools and the smell of motor oil, there was plenty of that to be found in the Action Expo, under the tents on the campus lawn. There was also a veterinary science table, where girls could practice suturing by stitching the peels back onto bananas, and a video game development table, where they could contribute their ideas to a “branching narrative” laid out on rectangles of paper.

By showing young women what video game careers are really like, Dana Steinhoff is trying to blow open the doors of a lucrative industry dominated by white men.

“Somewhere along the line, publishers decided that video games were for boys,” said Steinhoff, executive director of Rad Magpie, a Burlington non-profit dedicated to bringing underrepresented groups into the field of interactive media. “There’s always, like, a strong white dude, and it’s told from his point of view.”

If girls can make inroads into the industry, they can change the entire culture of video games as well as enjoy a piece of a very big pie, said Steinhoff, who started Rad Magpie with some like-minded classmates in the emergent media masters program at Champlain College after spending several years working in theater. Many people don’t realize that creative skills, such as those fostered in theater, translate well into video game development, Steinhoff said.

“It’s a viable career option for a lot of people,” she said.

The Women Can-Do Conference isn’t the only event aimed at drawing women into fields where they’re underrepresented. Earlier this month, girls in grades seven through 12 from all over the Upper Valley gathered at the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield, Vt., for a workshop designed to expose them to engineering and aerospace careers.

Girls need to meet real women working in these fields and learn about their career paths in order to envision themselves in such roles, said Gerry DeMuro, chairman of the board of the Acworth, N.H.-based educational non-profit Northern Heritage Mills, which has been hosting the event for 10 years.

Although the group is beginning to see women make inroads into STEM fields, a lot of work remains to be done, DeMuro said. Currently just one in 10 aerospace engineers are women, according to the Women in Aerospace Trade Group.

“There has to be some catch-up,” DeMuro said. “NASA and the United States need these women.”

Exploring the many job possibilities at the Women Can-Do Conference, Mercier and her friend, Megan Ducharme, a junior at Windsor High School, said they were still deciding what they want to do after graduation.

Ducharme had just attended a workshop for web design, a field she’s considering. Mercier is thinking about going into the auto body field. She first tried out collision repair last year during a special session at HACTC, in which students could dabble in programs they hadn’t tried before. So far, she likes it.

The friends said they aren’t worried about their prospects, as women, in whatever field they choose. If the playing field isn’t level yet, they think it’s beginning to tip in their direction.

“It’s going slowly. We’re getting there,” Mercier said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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