By SUZANNE CARLSON
EAST HARTFORD — Social stigma, wage gaps, and sexual harassment were some of the challenges discussed during a roundtable talk Tuesday about women pursuing jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.
Co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Teresa C. Younger, executive director for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, the discussion brought together about 30 women in Town Hall. Many of the women, who work as engineers, manufacturing professionals, and advocates, shared their own stories and talked about ways in which they are working to help younger generations overcome potential obstacles.
Deborah Kellogg-Van Orden, a member of the Fairfield chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, said her organization is working to engage girls in STEM fields through mentorship and classroom visits, and fight discrimination in the workforce.
Several women agreed that retaining women in STEM fields is a challenge, as the culture of male domination is so ingrained.
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After enduring sexually-tinged remarks from male manufacturing co-workers and fighting for raises and promotions, Kellogg-Van Orden said she coaches female associates to aggressively negotiate salaries and stand up to disrespectful treatment.
“It needs to be a level playing for everyone,” Kellogg-Van Orden said.
Christine Stahlecker, a board member of the SWE Hartford chapter, recalled attending a trade show early in her career and being horrified by the scantily clad models promoting various companies.
“I was like, holy cow, people are still doing this?” Stahlecker said. “To see this in that environment that they were still doing that, I was so offended.”
Heather Summerer, manager for corporate social responsibility and social events at Pratt & Whitney, said it was once part of her job to help hire such models.
“I started out at trade shows… I actually had a part in hiring the women that stood on the stand, and at the same time, I’m going, ‘What is this?'” Summerer said. “You become a part of it, so from a women’s standpoint, you’ve got to be part of the solution. We don’t do it anymore.”
Renee Zaugg, vice-president of IT infrastructure and application development at Aetna, said she’s made changes at the company to be more inclusive to female employees, such as banning the traditional all-male golf outings with clients.
“There’s no golfing unless it’s for a charitable event and it’s multigendered, period, end of story,” Zaugg said. “It does create this imbalance.”
Crystal Hernandez, a behavioral therapist in the East Hartford schools, said all of her technology education teachers were male, and more female role models would go a long way toward helping girls see what’s possible.
“If we can get more female teachers filling in those spaces, they can then see that this is a career path,” Hernandez said.
Fairfield SWE President Carolyn Foston, a transportation engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said she was inspired to pursue engineering after asking employees of a manufacturing company to speak at her high school.
“They were so happy to come and answer our questions about using physics, and then after that, I was like, ‘Wow, these people are so passionate about their careers,'” Foston said. She took an introductory engineering course at Uconn where her interest was further piqued by a video about the Big Dig, and “I’ve been there ever since.”
Ashley Stewart, a member of East Hartford’s Inland Wetlands Commission, said introducing girls to science and technology at a young age will help open doors for them later on.
Stewart, who works as an environmental engineer, said her mother found opportunities for her to participate in activities such as taking water samples from the Farmington River, which eventually led to her pursuing science in college.
“I didn’t even realize that that’s what I would end up doing but it was exposure,” Stewart said.
Alice Pritchard, executive director for the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, said some girls need more encouragement than others.
“We really do try to find those unsuspecting girls who have not thought about it,” Pritchard said. “I think that exposure, seeing it, being able to touch it, feel it, use the right language, all of that is very empowering and starts to change their mind.”
Bindi Doshi, technical services manager for MBL International, said marketing to young girls has also become more progressive, and parents can choose to buy their daughters products like GoldiBlox, a building set designed by a female engineer, rather than Easy Bake ovens.
East Hartford Library Director Susan Hansen said marketing to girls is a big problem, with teen-focused magazines pushing the idea that “you have to be attractive and stylish” rather than educated and opinionated.
Hansen said her own passion for science was quashed by a guidance counselor as a high schooler in the early 1970s, and she’s now encouraging young women by bringing a suite of science-based programs to the library this spring and summer.
Younger said that women have come a long way toward equality in STEM fields, but “we still have to continue to ask the questions, we have not gotten there yet.”