A Madras High School senior, Karina Ramirez is pretty sure she’s going to pursue a career in programming.
“Once you start learning how to create things, it’s like common sense,” she said.
This was the first time she’d worked in an all-girl setting.
“You’re not stuck in a class with guys, feeling like, ‘I don’t know this,’” Ramirez said. “We’re all going through it together.”
Making women feel confident around technology is the key to getting more of them into high-tech industries, said ChickTech founder Janice Levenhagen-Seeley. ChickTech is trying to establish a chapter in Central Oregon, so this is the second year it has brought its program to Madras. Twenty-seven girls chose from two-day workshops in software, electronic circuits or robotics. Earlier this month, ChickTech held similar workshops in Bend at Oregon State University-Cascades for 45 girls from Central and Eastern Oregon.
Several organizations, local and national, run programs that expose girls to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM.
ChickTech, which has two dozen chapters across the country, combines support and networking for professional women with outreach to high school girls. Levenhagen-Seeley said ChickTech is interested in outreach to rural students, partly because of her experience growing up outside a town of 4,000 people in Wisconsin. The workshops are free, and ChickTech provides lunch, transportation, even child care if necessary, she said.
While the organization embraces stereotypically female branding, Levenhagen-Seeley said it welcomes and relies on male volunteers because men, after all, still dominate the high-tech world. All of the workshop leaders in Madras were men, though OSU-Cascades computer science instructor Yong Bakos brought two of his female students to help.
“ChickTech does a good job of making it a special experience,” Bakos said. While not all the students are set on pursuing tech careers, any exposure increases the odds, he said.
Women make up 31 percent of the high-tech workforce in Oregon, and they hold an even smaller share of technical jobs, according to the Oregon Employment Department. Women represent 24 percent of computer and mathematical occupations and 15 percent of architecture and engineering jobs.
Lisa Swenson, a 59-year-old software engineer from Bend, said she developed a habit over the years of counting women in meetings. She said she’s never attended a technical meeting where more than 20 percent of the people at the table were women.
“I am often the only woman there,” she said. “That is heartbreaking.”
Swenson and two of her male colleagues from Navis, a hospitality industry software company based in Bend, volunteered at ChickTech’s February workshops in Bend. Swenson also thinks confidence, in addition to cultural bias, plays a role in whether women pursue and stay in high-tech work.
“I think women apply too high of a criteria to themselves. They tend to not take (the jobs) because they can’t do them perfectly, or they’re judging themselves much too harshly.”
Giving the keynote talk Thursday morning in Madras, Swenson advised the girls to reject perfectionism. She also told them to ignore “blockheads,” which she said are the minority of male colleagues who perpetuate bias against women in tech.
Melissa Gallegos, a junior at Redmond High School, has already encountered blockheads in her auto shop class, where she’s one of four girls out of 30 students. Some of the boys have been working on cars since they were very young, and they talk down to the girls — “I could do that with one hand” — if the girls struggle with a new task, she said.
“They make you feel bad about your experience.”
Gallegos said she came to ChickTech because she wants to become an aerospace engineer. She was the first in her group to finish assembling a robotic car kit, but this would be her first experience with programming.
It is intimidating to think of going into a male-dominated career, she said. “I’m going to go in there and prove I’m not what they think I am. I can do what they can do, or better.”
Ramirez and fellow programming student Elan Rios said they’ll remember Swenson’s tips as they go into the working world. Swenson told the girls they should apply for any job where they meet 50 percent of the requirements because in reality, they are qualified. When it comes to pay, she told them to look up the average salary, and ask for 10 percent more.
“The worst that’s going to happen is they’re going to give you 5 percent more,” Swenson said.
ChickTech lays out the earning potential for tech careers in its handbook for high school workshops. A software engineer’s average salary: $79,000.
After aspiring for years to become a cardiologist, Ramirez is getting practical about her career options. One reason she likes programming is the education isn’t as long or expensive as medicine. “This is just something simple,” she said.
A lot of the girls are still exploring. Halei Manu, a sophomore in Madras, was excited about working with a robotic car. “I can’t wait to start programming it, making it come alive,” she said. While she likes tech things, she’s also into animals, dancing and music.
Trinity Barnett was at ChickTech for a second year in a row. Last year she made a cute panda bear on a 3-D printer. This year she was sewing an Arduino microcontroller into a tote bag, which she planned to wire with randomly flashing LED lights that would be incorporated into a cityscape scene.
As a sophomore Barnett has already done some coding on her own time. “I don’t think I’m going to pursue it as a career,” she said. “If I were to make it a job, it would take away the fun of it.”
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