I attended a performance of a local theater production featuring local kids ages 13 to 17 who had attended a summer camp that culminated in this weekend’s musical. At the end of Saturday night’s show, the camp director, who doubles as a local schoolteacher, presented their senior graduates; these are the students who graduated high school last May and are preparing to enter college in a few weeks.
There were five seniors recognized. The first two were planning to pursue degrees in the performing arts, and thunderous applause ensued after the director’s congratulations. The third student, a female, chose to enter the University of Oklahoma majoring in engineering. I missed the comment the director/teacher made about her choice of career, but the tone didn’t have the encouragement the other students received. The not-so-thunderous applause came from my seat and a few others. The last two students also received loud applause from the audience as they were also planning on careers in theater.
What are we missing here? The director and the audience reward a student who participates in music theater for several summers and then decides to study it further in higher education, but a student who decides a STEM field is more attractive to her is not?
Is it a symptom of the Midwest attitude that women should follow more traditional career choices, including the chosen path of the director (Unfortunately some 30 plus years after earning my degree, I’m disappointed this mind-set still exists.)? I listened to a sociology professor from OU recently as she talked about the state of women in Oklahoma. She said even at OU that women were often advised to pursue careers in sociology, nursing and education. Her own peers steered women away from STEM fields. Low paying fields as employees of the state await these aspiring, talented women.
I’m not discounting the women who chose those fields or who will choose those fields in the future. Educating women, starting very young, to learn of all of their available career choices is important.
Some disconcerting statistics from the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women 2010 report (http://women.library.okstate.edu/countyreport/docs/fullreport.pdf):
- 25% of women over the age of 15 are divorced or widowed
- The median annual income for full-time working-women in Oklahoma in 2008 was $35,600
- Oklahoma is ranked 45th in the nation for the proportion of women in the labor force employed in professional and managerial occupations. Women are significantly more represented in educational professions, nearly tripling the amount of men in these fields, and in healthcare practitioner occupations.
- An Amnesty International report listed Oklahoma as one of the worst places for female healthcare, with one in four being uninsured.
- One out of every seven women in Oklahoma lives below the poverty line, ranking Oklahoma 41 out of 50 states for women ages 18 and older living in poverty.
Oklahoma is also number one in the incarceration of women. (http://www.doc.state.ok.us/offenders/ocjrc/94/940650c.htm) In this report it states: A brochure prepared by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for a conference on women in prison in 1991 remarked that “Fifty-one percent failed to complete their education because they were bored or tired, and 34 percent failed to graduate because of pregnancy.”
What is the key to helping the state of women in Oklahoma? Increasing a girl’s self-worth by opening her young eyes to possibilities in careers of all sorts. Working with her parent or guardian to break a cycle of low self-esteem or substance abuse or state aid as a salary. I remember feeling embarrassed by the results of an eighth grade career interest test. My results were overwhelming for an operations research analyst. It had ‘male’ written all over it, although I hadn’t a clue what the job really entailed.
Industry partnerships with education are excellent ways to keep the boredom at bay as well. I’ve volunteered at robotics and math competitions for the company I work for. My complaint about these activities is that the kids have no idea that I’m an engineer. I’m sure the kids at the math competition thought I was a parent chaperoning the testing. More interaction is needed to inform the students, boys and girls alike, that pursuing a non-traditional career can be the right thing for them.
I’m wishing a lot of success for all of the theater kids, with an extra special helping for the lone engineering major. Standing in the middle of that theater proclaiming a non-traditional field of study shows me she’s already got the right stuff to succeed.