Jen Oldham: If you give a girl a power tool …
This op-ed, written by Vermont Works for Women’s Executive Director Jen Oldham, originally appeared in VT Digger. Since 1999 Vermont Works for Women has been running Rosie’s Girls, a summer camp in Vermont that empowers middle school girls and supports their career exploration.
VT Digger | July 31, 2019
By: Jen Oldham, Executive Director of Vermont Works for Women
[C]ause and effect: one of the most basic laws of nature. If this, then that.
So … what happens if you give a girl a power tool, and teach her to use it in a supportive environment that encourages responsible risk-taking, problem solving, and teamwork? Vermont Works for Women, which is celebrating 20 years of its Rosie’s Girls STEAM, Weld, and Build summer camps for middle school girls and gender non-conforming youth, is happy to report out on this question.
If you give a girl a power tool… initially, there may be amazement at being invited to use a table saw, or a power drill, or a welder. Then comes the thrill (and perhaps a touch of fear?) at the first encounter with the noise and power of the tool in their hands. Then, whether after the first try, or after a week of using the tools to build and create, comes the realization, “Oh, I can SO do this!” And the game is on.
What was once viewed as the domain of boys is exposed to be equally the domain of girls. What once felt off limits or “too hard” is proven to be well within reach. Doubt is replaced by confidence. Works of art are created. Awareness grows of how gender bias affects what we learn and how we think about ourselves and our future. And seeds are planted about what other gender stereotypes might be just as easily debunked. (Hint: the sky’s the limit!)
If you give a girl a power tool … you get feedback like, “it makes you feel confident,” “you learn new things about yourself,” and “don’t be afraid of the sparks!”
Rosie’s Girls teaches trades and STEAM skills to 11- to 14-year-olds, but the goal is not to create the next generation of tradeswomen or engineers (although there is no denying they represent an untapped opportunity for women to earn a high-wage in high-demand lines of work). Rather, the goal is to create the lived experience of toppling a gender stereotype, to acknowledge and celebrate the power in doing so, and to awaken recognition of how, if we accept stereotypes as fact, we may close doors to amazing opportunities before even looking through them.
If you give a girl a power tool … the confidence and knowledge she gains broadens her horizons and uniquely informs how she navigates her future, in a world likely to remain rife with bias.
In the U.S., Title IX legislates equal access to educational opportunities regardless of gender, and equal opportunity laws exist to counter discrimination in the workplace. Unfortunately, what these laws can’t do is UNDO centuries of cultural norms baked into our collective psyche that have created and continue to perpetuate occupational segregation. While in the last 70 years women’s educational attainment and participation in the labor force has increased to near parity with men, their occupational choices have seen far less change.
The stubborn truth is women continue to make up the majority of workers in lower-paying jobs and sectors such as child care, social work, education, and administrative staff positions, while men make up a disproportionate number of workers in higher-paying jobs and fields such as finance, technology, the trades, and in senior management positions. According to Change The Story’s 2016 Status Report “Where Vermont Women Work and Why it Matters,” nearly half of women working full-time continue to be employed in the same occupations in which they worked 40 years ago.
Occupational segregation has a corrosive effect on women, undermining personal aspirations, reducing earning potential, and contributing to a lifetime of increased financial vulnerability. But for girls to choose career paths in fields considered “non-traditional” for their gender, they need role models and mentors to show them the way. The lack of women in higher-paying, male-dominated fields limits girls’ exposure and access to these fields, perpetuating the segregation and reinforcing the gender stereotypes. It’s a chicken and egg scenario that requires multiple and persistent points of disruption to break apart.
If you give a girl a power tool … you create a disruption!
Over the last 20 years, Rosie’s Girls has provided close to 1,000 girls in Vermont with the opportunity to recognize their potential and eschew stereotypes that potentially hold them back. The message and delivery model of Rosie’s Girls has attracted national attention, with seven sites from Ohio to California running Rosie’s Girls camps based on the VWW program. This fall, VWW will expand Rosie’s Girls with after school offerings at targeted Vermont middle schools. Twenty years on, demand continues to grow.
If you give a girl a power tool … her friends will want one too! Cause and effect that supports individual transformation and cultural change, one empowered middle schooler at a time.