Visibility May Help Get More Women Involved In CTE

Mar 29, 2019

Candice Ayres holds up her project for her machine tool class. Ayres is working on making a cigarette case and included the sugar skull detail to show her skills.
Credit Catherine Wheeler

Mikayla Patton had no intention of going into what she calls "dirty work" before starting school at Gillette College. She thought maybe she would try criminal justice. But then she got a phone call from her dad. He had worked on oil rigs and in coal mines.

"He was like, 'I'm glad you're going into an office job,' and he's like, 'I would never want you to do any of the stuff I did. You should be a nurse or something,'" she said. "And two weeks before classes started I switched my major to welding because I wanted to get my hands dirty."

Now she's a welding instructor at Gillette College.

Men do dominate careers like auto mechanic, welder, electrician, and people have noticed.

Thirteen years ago, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act required states to work on this. It set target numbers for classes that are nontraditional for certain genders, like getting more women into classes like auto mechanics or agriculture.

But it's been a slow process.

Around 2,000 students are in career and technical education or CTE classes across high schools in Campbell County School District. And that number counts students more than once if they are in multiple CTE classes. Out of that number, there are 493 female students enrolled in classes.

Andrew Borgialli, Thunder Basin High School CTE instructor and department chair, said most CTE classes, like business courses, are balanced. But he admitted that most female students aren't taking welding or similar classes.

"There are some stereotypes you know, predominantly there are more male students in welding than females," he said. "Some of the agriculture classes may have more male students but then there are some of those classes that only have female students."

Borgialli said a student's schedule often depends on their interests or what their friends are taking.

Campbell County's district CTE curriculum facilitator Autumn Williams said there is a lack of female students in auto, computer science and engineering classes.

"But that doesn't mean that girls can't be mechanics at all. It just means it's not an area that they are interested in or don't know that they can do it," Williams said.

But more visibility may help women think they are capable of the work. Candice Ayres is in her second year in the machine tool program at Sheridan College, and she's the only women in her class.

Ayres didn't have any experience before signing up. But she says knowing the class would be led by a female instructor encouraged her.

"That made me feel so much better, just to know there was a female there because it is intimidating no matter how confident you are. It's intimidating sometimes," she said.

Sara Spann is that instructor in Sheridan College's machining program. She said as a teacher, she likes to have balance in her classroom.

"I enjoy having the diversity in the classroom. I enjoy both males and females. Like if you get too many men in a room, they always have to have the macho contest. It's just a nice way to mix it up," Spann said.

The college hosts demo days for students to come and learn more about what CTE is. That provided an opportunity for Ayres' presence as a college student to reassure female high school students that they could join the field.

"I kind of noticed a lot of females coming over and talking to me and just getting them to the point where they're asking questions and not scared to ask questions," she said. "I think that was awesome because they're not standing in the back completely in the dark about what we're doing."

These interactions are one of the ways Williams, Campbell County's CTE curriculum facilitator, thinks schools can recruit more women for these career paths.

"We actually have a professional day planned to maybe recruit more of the nontraditional students in our CTE programs," she said.

Wiliams said welding instructor Patton will come to speak with students about her career.

"So I think that will help, having [an alumna] come back and come back and say, 'Yeah, I was a female welder and look how much money I'm making now," she said.

Patton agreed that seeing more women in the field may be reassuring for potential students.

"If more women came into these types of fields, it'd really help the younger generation to see it's not as intimidating as you might think and that women belong in every field whether it's tech related or more traditional," Patton said.

Borgialli said he is already slowly seeing a change at his high school.

"As we move into the 21st century, I think more and more you'll see those nontraditional students in nontraditional classes, and eventually that nontraditional label will go away," he said.