Institute provides tools to boost census of women in science, tech and trades

Institute provides tools to boost census of women in science, tech and trades

Kristen Hanlon
Donna Milgram

Donna Milgram works to help educators and employers attract women to jobs in computer science, engineering and the trades. Photo by Kevin Yarbrough.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau, in 2008 women comprised only 11.5 percent of engineers, 22.4 percent of computer programmers and 20.9 percent of computer software engineers. Women were even more scarce in the trades, making up 7.5 percent of installation, maintenance and repair workers; 4.9 percent of surveying and mapping technicians; 3.3 percent of telecommunication line installers and repairers, 1.6 percent of automotive service technicians and 1 percent of electricians.

In a sunny, quiet office in Ballena Bay, there is a nonprofit organization working to change this.

In 1994, Donna Milgram founded the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (IWITTS), the only national organization whose sole mission is to provide educators and employers with the tools they need to encourage women to enter and succeed in careers where they are under-represented. The institute’s solutions include research, professional development, publications, technical assistance, and outreach and marketing products.

Milgram spent a year on Capitol Hill in the office of Congresswoman Connie Morella (R-MD), as a Congressional fellow on women and public policy. During that time, she testified before Congress and assisted on the development of two bills on nontraditional employment. Both bills, the Women in Apprenticeship Occupations and Nontraditional Occupations Act (PL 102-350) and The Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development Act (PL 105-255) were signed into law.

In Alameda, Milgram has served on the Economic Development Commission for the City of Alameda and the Board of Directors for Girls Inc. of the Island City.

For more on the institute, visit its website at

What led to the founding of the institute?
Early on, I realized that many things that are described as “women’s issues” wouldn’t be issues if women were just sitting at the table. A good example of this is the first generation of air bags in cars. Those disproportionately injured women and children because they worked least well for those who were under 5’4”. But 5’4” is the average height for women and children are smaller. If women had been part of the design team, I’m sure it would have occurred to those teams who developed those first-generation air bags to test them on smaller crash test dummies as well.

Another example is law enforcement, where I’ve done a lot of work getting more women into law enforcement and retaining them. There’s a whole stream of funding for domestic violence training for law enforcement officers through the National Institute of Justice, which is great, but I believe if we had a critical mass of women police chiefs and women law enforcement officers, then we wouldn’t have to do the same level of training to get officers to respond to domestic violence calls.

If you look at the literature on the wage gap between women and men, the majority of that gap is not because of wage discrimination but because women work in substantially different careers than men – it’s mostly due to the careers women choose.

The importance of getting girls and women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is that they’ll have more opportunities to find interesting work, and they’ll feel they have access and freedom to a wide variety of careers and it makes a big economic difference, too.

What do you see as the key factors in recruiting and retaining women to careers in the trades and science, technology, engineering and math?
The number one issue is women and girls don’t see other women and girls in these career pathways for the most part, because the percentages are still so small in the trades and STEM careers. For young women, they don’t see any female role models; it’s not, for the most part, what their mom is doing, it’s not what their sister chose, or what their aunt is doing. The majority of women are not pioneers – we all love pioneers, but by their very nature pioneers are different, are a very small percentage of the population. A big part of how you recruit is by female role models. We identify those and link them with programs, such as those in community colleges, where they can make a difference. Female mentors are crucial for women and girls who want to enter these fields.

The research shows that (when it comes to recruiting for STEM fields) males like to know how big the hard drive is, how fast the engine goes, and women and girls, on the other hand, are more engaged by how STEM may be used to help people. Most recruiters and teachers in the STEM field are male, so they talk about the things that are exciting to them, but those things aren’t engaging to most women.

For example, robotics is a huge part of engineering now. So it’s being taught not only in colleges but also in high schools now. This robot (shows a photo on her iPhone of a masculine-looking robot) is being used as a recruiting tool at conferences. The way robotics courses are usually taught are by competition, because this is what males prefer; but the research shows that two-thirds of women and girls prefer collaboration to competition.

What we teach in all our different trainings we do is, (we) incorporate things that appeal to females. We are a reseller of SciGirls DVDs (a show on PBS). One of these DVDs is an episode on robotics. These are real, middle school girls who have a female engineering mentor who engages them with rescue robots. After the girls are taken on a tour and shown how these robots are used in rescue missions, they are taught how to program the robots. One group makes an outgoing robot, and the other group makes the shy robot, figuring out through collaboration the characteristics for each. And it turns out not to be a big deal for these girls because they’re motivated, they’re interested, and they see how the programming connects with the robots functions.

The traditional way robotics is taught – having robots compete and explode – appeals only to a limited population interested in pursuing engineering. By incorporating collaborative and contextual activities, that will engage a larger group of females and some males too.

In 2009, the White House launched the Educate to Innovate campaign, which sites as one of its three goals to “…expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls.” Have you noticed an increase in funding for organizations like yours?
Actually, there have been cuts. Over the last 10 years, funding has been drastically decreased. Every state used to have what was called a sex equity coordinator, and there was federal money that passed through to these coordinators at state level. These offices set up competitive grants that could be applied for, doing the types of things that we do. But over the years that job title has disappeared and those monies have disappeared as well. Although there is more recognition and awareness of gender and STEM, there are significantly fewer funds and infrastructure to back it up.

In view of the fact that there is limited funding, our approach is to work with the educators who are working directly with students. It’s a much more sustainable approach and it’s working quite well. The days of separate special programs are largely over, and frankly, the majority of outreach is done by teachers through personal encouragement, making the curriculum appealing, providing role models, and the like.

We’re currently on our fourth National Science Foundation grant, and the other part of our funding comes through trainings that we do around the country for schools, school districts and states. I do online trainings as well, and we sell posters and other awareness materials which bring in some revenue. We host an annual training in Emeryville at the Sheraton that people come to from around the country. My dream is that someday we’ll have an equivalent hotel in Alameda and be able to host it here.

The institute has done a lot of trainings and outreach at colleges. Do you do outreach at the middle school or high school level? Does Alameda Unified know about your work?
Our primary focus has been at community and four-year colleges, but we have worked with high schools too. In the past I’ve worked with College of Alameda and had that be a site for events, though not recently.

Over the years we’ve been blessed to have several interns at IWITTS that have come from AUSD, primarily from Encinal High School. One of our recent interns, Carmen Tang, who still manages our Facebook presence, got a full scholarship to UC Berkeley and is now a freshman there. Her plan is to pursue computer science as a major. Another intern from many years ago, Oulekemi (Kemi) Macaulay-Newman, now consults nationally on IT security. Originally from Nigeria, she came to the U.S. when she was 14, graduated with a B.S. in Mathematics from UC Berkeley, and went on to get a degree in IT security at Johns Hopkins.

I’m not sure AUSD knows about us. Sometimes it’s hard to be a prophet in your own land (laughs) but that’s a situation I’d love to rectify. It would be great to have a connection to AUSD and be an asset to the local community. We have lots of free resources on our website, too, for teachers to check out.


Submitted by Sandy Adams (not verified) on Fri, Jan 10, 2014

I'm glad to have Donna Milgram be a part of my life. She is a very bright, colorful and intelligent woman that is filled with a wealth of information and resources for young women around the country.

Submitted by Donna Milgram (not verified) on Fri, Jan 10, 2014

Thank you so much for the article, I want to let everyone know about a free webinar I'm giving next Tuesday, Jan 14 at 11 am PST More Female Students in Just One Year, sign up on this link here

Submitted by Leslie Krongold (not verified) on Fri, Jan 10, 2014

Great article and great work, Ms. Milgram!