Full STEAM ahead: Microsoft helps bring tech partnerships to women

Like many young girls, Sallie Petty began to dislike science and math in school.

It wasn’t until she left college that she realized that those were the subjects she not only enjoyed, but ones she wanted to use in her career.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is now part of Women in Technology Wisconsin’s WITonCampus Professional Connection Program. Petty (now a returning UW-Green Bay student) is hoping that her experiences, and the experiences of other women interested in technology will help more women enter computer science and information technology fields.

Breakthrough Mentor-1

Mentor Elaine Stephens (left) and Sallie Petty
at BreakThrough Fuel

Microsoft TechSpark and UW-Green Bay support and promote women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) fields. By bringing college women into STEAM fields, and partnering them with women in technology careers, the WITonCampus group works to help grow the number of women in technology jobs.

In 2012, a study by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that for the 1984-1985 school year, 37 percent of computer and information science majors were women, but that by the 2010-2011 school year, that percentage had dropped to 18 percent.

The same holds true in the workforce. Even though the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs in the computer and information sciences industry will grow by 15-20 percent by 2025, fewer than 20 percent of those jobs will be filled by women. This despite the fact that, according to the US Department of Labor, women make up 47 percent of the nation’s workforce.

“Because of gender inequity, we have a huge under-representation of women in technology,” said UW-Green Bay Assistant Prof. Ankur Chattopadhyay, (Information and Computing Sciences). “There is a strong perception that computers are a male thing. That’s not true. This field is for smart people and creative people, regardless of gender.”

For Susan Gallagher-Lepak, dean of the UW-Green Bay’s College of Health, Education and Social Welfare, and parent to a 15-year old, the issue became clear at a cyber security camp on the UW-Green Bay campus that her son attended this past summer.

“As a parent, and as a faculty member, I began to ask a lot of questions about the camp, even so far as to see how many girls were attending,” Gallagher-Lepak said. “It turned out there were only three girls out of the 40 enrollees. I thought, ‘We can’t have that.’ So I began to actively recruit girls to the camp. I sent out emails to the Girls Scouts and other girl-centric groups.”

As a result, the GenCyber camp ended up with 100 campers, and a good 31 percent of them female. The girls joined their male counterparts in a week of cryptography, network security and privacy. Funded by a NSA grant, the camp helped the students to understand appropriate online behavior, to learn about cybersecurity content and to discover what cybersecurity careers are out there for them.

As fall came and UW-Green Bay returned to class, Gallagher-Lepak and Chattopadhyay and others decided to make an effort to attract women into the sciences programs at the school. Through Microsoft’s TechSpark Wisconsin, they were able to connect with similarly minded groups.

Michelle Schuler, Manager TechSpark Wisconsin, a national program to foster economic development and job creation in areas including Northeast Wisconsin. Schuler worked with the university to introduce the professors to WITonCampus.

“One of the ways that TechSpark Wisconsin will foster opportunity is by making connections between organizations that have shared goals,” Schuler said. “We are at this nexus of technology opportunities, ideas, and resources that allows us to have conversations with businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, and so many others and have a good sense of where strategic connections can be made.”

That also meant finding women in technology on campus who could participate in the WIT on Campus program. Petty was one of the women the professors turned to first.

Petty felt like an unlikely candidate, especially considering her past — feeling as though math and science classes were boring, and without purpose. Later in high school, she said she did well in trigonometry, but found it frustrating.

When she enrolled at UW-Green Bay, she says she picked the furthest thing from science and math she could — acting and music. She left UW-Green Bay, moved to New York and started her career as an actress and singer. Eventually, she decided to return to the University to complete her degree, receiving her BA in Theatre Performance with an emphasis in musical theatre in December 2016. Degree in hand, she was ready to get a job, but quickly found that her Arts degree left her with limited career options. Her father suggested a change in direction.

“Dad found this class to learn CSharp and I thought I’ll try it and see how it turns out,” she said. “What surprised me was that I really enjoyed it. So, I thought, okay, I’m going to see what UW-Green Bay has to offer for computer science majors.”

So, Petty went back to school, this time as a computer science major with a double emphasis in cyber security and software engineering.

“I was… learning more about computer science, and I thought ‘Yeah, this is fun,’” she said. “It’s really not the life that I thought I’d be leading, but I’m loving it.”

Now she and another female student, Leah Zorn, are founding members of WITonCampus at UW-Green Bay. Both now have mentors — women in tech careers – to learn about jobs in technology and to get career ready. According to Schuler, Petty and Zorn are part of 15 students across Wisconsin involved in the WITonCampus program.

The program has helped Petty find support for her career goals, as well as helped her identify what she wants to do in her career.

“My mentor is Elaine Stephens at Breakthrough Fuel,” Petty said. “She has really helped me to understand that there is more to computer science than just sitting at a computer coding.  My Dad has been what is termed an “architect” all his life. He sits at his computer and writes programs and debugs programs. It’s amazing to watch him work, but I really worried that coding would not be where I excelled necessarily. Elaine was able to show me the many different ways I would be able to use my degree out in the real world in areas like business analysis, development, even project management. She also helped me realize I was getting overwhelmed because I was often looking at projects and learning coding languages through too large of a lens. She reminded me that breaking apart something and working it out in smaller pieces makes it much more attainable. I’ve really valued her insights and guidance.”

Leah Zorn has been working in tech for years. As a sophomore in high school, she applied for and won an internship with State Farm Insurance. Since then, she’s worked on various projects like front-end web development to digital marketing with the Green Bay Gamblers, a Tier 1 junior ice hockey team. For her, computer science is opportunity.

Zorn’s sister also majored in computer science, so for her, watching her older sister’s journey helped her prepare for hers. But still, learning from and networking with other women in tech jobs has helped her see all of the options available to her.

“My mentor has been good at putting me with people in different companies so I can see a wide-range of possibilities,” she said. “In that way, I’m glad to be one of the first people in the WIT on Campus program, because I’m hoping that my success story will be an inspiration to other women thinking about going into tech careers.”

Gallagher-Lepak said that bringing women into tech fields not only addresses the lack of diversity in the industry, but also helps the school to create a pipeline of qualified professionals.

“When somebody is not at the table, there are assumptions made about who should be at the table or at the company. We need women’s voices in these industries,” Gallagher-Lepak said. “Our goal is to have a pipeline of talent coming out of UW-Green Bay, but the best pipeline is a diverse pipeline with all sort of talent from all over the spectrum.”

Already, Petty said, businesses are interested in her.

“I applied for an internship with one company and, unfortunately, didn’t get it,” she said. “But they told me ‘You don’t have the technical skills yet, but we’re still interested in you. Please stay in touch with us.’ That’s a huge thing.”

As leader of the WITonCampus group on UW-Green Bay, Petty said it’s important for her and other members of WITonCampus to fight the stereotype of those in computer sciences as nerdy men, to show women they can go into computer science careers.

There’s a certain stigma, she said, that prevents girls from entering the computer sciences. And it’s a stigma that she feels while she’s on campus.

“When I showed up for classes in the fall, I was one of only two girls in my information technology class and one of only two girls with a computer science major in my Computer Science 101 class,” she said. “Every time I would say I was a computer science major, heads would swivel around to look at me.”

That’s something the University is actively working to change with programs like WIT on Campus, Chattopadhyay says. With more and more women entering the field, reactions like that will likely disappear. But as far as getting women into computer and information science majors, there’s work to do, he said.

“I would say we’re still far away from the numbers we need,” he said. “But we’re doing better than we were. We hope to have Sallie and Leah serve as role models and mentors for the other female students who will be entering these fields. It’s the responsibility of the university to open up these professions to women and to increase women’s representation in the computer and information science industry.”

Story by freelance writer, Liz Carey. Photos by Marketing and University Communication photographer/videographer, Dan Moore.

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